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Israel Considers Ground Attack as Conflict Escalates

January 1, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Israeli air strikes in Gaza killed senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan as the Israeli government said it was ready to begin operations towards a ground invasion. New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner discusses the conflict.

RAY SUAREZ: The escalating Israeli-Hamas war. Earlier today, I spoke with Ethan Bronner, the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief.

Ethan Bronner, welcome. Israeli tanks and other military assets have been massing on the border with Gaza for days now. Does Israel intend to mount a land assault on Gaza?

ETHAN BRONNER, New York Times: I mean, nothing is certain, but it certainly seems like it. All indications for military and political leaders in Israel is that there will be a ground assault, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: What is the objective? What does Israel think it can accomplish on land that it hasn’t been able to do from the air?

ETHAN BRONNER: Well, the objective — I mean, there are sort of a range of objectives, and there’s a certain amount of mission slippage here and there, but let’s speak about the clearest, broadest objective that Israel speaks about, which is to end the rocket fire into Israel from Gaza.

So Israel’s argument is that it needs to either get to the guys who are sending the rockets and end their will to do it or end their supply of rockets.

So the idea is that Gaza is a relatively small space, and if you seal it off, and end all supplies into it, and start to go after the things that exist in it and the people who do the shooting, eventually you’ll end the supply or the will or both.

And the argument is, it’s not all doable by air or by sea. There’s some stuff in bunkers; there’s some stuff underground. And that’s what they’re going to go after on land.

RAY SUAREZ: Last night on our program, General Mike Herzog said that Israel’s intention was not to crush or destroy Hamas. Tzipi Livni said something very similar today in Paris. What does Israel want to see when the smoke clears?

ETHAN BRONNER: Well, as I said, the official argument is that Israel wants Hamas to be unable to continue to carry out rocket attacks on Israel. Implicit in your question, though, is, is that doable without essentially destroying Hamas? And I think they don’t know the answer to that.

I think that when Tzipi Livni and others are asked about Hamas, if you listen carefully, people will say to her, “Do you want to destroy Hamas?” She won’t say no. She’ll say, “Hamas is a problem.” And Hamas is a problem for Israel.

And I think that we don’t know what’s going to happen ultimately when they go in. We don’t know how they’re going to feel when they’re in. But I think the temptation to do something besides end rocket fire will be great.

Lessons from Lebanon

RAY SUAREZ: Are these military actions carried out in the shadow of the Lebanese war of 2006? Is it very much on the minds of not only the leadership, but the Israeli public?

ETHAN BRONNER: It's hugely on the minds, but in a range of ways. You know, for outsiders, for Americans, certainly for Lebanese and other Arabs, the 2006 Lebanon war was an example of Israel being too brutal, at least for many people.

In Israel, the view is the opposite, that Israel was insufficiently aggressive, insufficiently complete in its attack on Hezbollah, and that's the reason that it ultimately failed.

The other argument that commanders are making is that with Hezbollah the Syrian-Lebanese border was essentially open and there was a re-supply constantly possible and, at the time, Hezbollah was separate from the Lebanese state.

In this case, Hamas is the state of Gaza. And if you seal it off, which they're trying to do, therefore -- then you can, in fact, achieve objectives that you weren't able to in Lebanon and you can send a message to Iran and to those who wish Israel ill, that Israel is willing and capable of carrying out harsh military action.

RAY SUAREZ: Gaza is a very densely populated place. Is there much talk in public in Israel about the possibly heavy casualties on both sides?

ETHAN BRONNER: Well, you know, honestly, the situation in Israel is that people are not desperately concerned about casualties in Gaza. I mean, there are people who are; I don't mean to overstate this.

But honestly there is a kind of sense of these -- Hamas was voted into power in Gaza, the Gazans deserve what they're getting on some level, and there is concern on the other hand about Israeli casualties, yes, because of the close urban kind of warfare that they're worried they'll have.

Now, we don't know when we say that the ground troops and tanks and so on, APCs will go in. We don't really know what the plan is.

But we do know that Barak is a very experienced military man, unlike Amir Peretz when he was defense minister for the Lebanon war, and the likelihood is that he will surprise us in some way with some relatively clever military maneuver. Whether it will succeed, we have no idea.

Hamas prepares for ground assault

RAY SUAREZ: Do we know if Hamas is preparing for a ground assault?

ETHAN BRONNER: We certainly know that Hamas is preparing for a ground assault, that they've booby trapped many places, that they have dug many tunnels. In many ways, they've also learned from Hezbollah experience.

One of the things that Hezbollah did when Israel sent in ground troops was that underground bunkers and underground tunnels, their own armed men would come out of those tunnels as Israeli soldiers arrived and cause many Israeli casualties.

But in addition, the Israelis have learned from those things and, in theory, what they're doing from the sea and from the air is to try to create the conditions for a successful ground operation. Again, I have no idea whether that will work.

RAY SUAREZ: And finally, one of Hamas' top leaders in Gaza has been killed by an Israeli assault, along with targeting the smugglers' tunnels, along with targeting the rocket workshops and launch sites. Is this part of Israel's objective in its military action in Gaza?

ETHAN BRONNER: It is. Israel has argued -- and, again, I said I think that their own sense of mission is a little bit unclear, but they've certainly argued that anybody who is a commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, their military wing, or of the government is a target.

The man they hit today was a kind of cheap preacher of the military wing, and he was a kind of a bridge between the military and political wing, a guy with a fair amount of prestige who had argued that when Israel, you know, has been calling people in these kind of robo-calls and dropping leaflets and telling people to get out of their homes before they attack, this is a guy who said publicly many times, "We don't listen to what the Israelis tell us. We stay." And, in fact, he was in his home when they killed him.

RAY SUAREZ: Ethan Bronner joins us from Jerusalem. Thanks for talking with us.

ETHAN BRONNER: It's my pleasure, Ray.