TOPICS > Politics

Israeli Troops Backed by Airstrikes Move Deeper Into Gaza

January 5, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Israeli forces continued their military campaign in the Gaza Strip Monday as international calls for a cease-fire intensified. Foreign policy analysts mull the latest developments in the fighting.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Next, the Gaza war. We begin with Independent Television News reports from Israel and Gaza from Juliet Bremner and Mark Austin. Gaza is first.

MARK AUSTIN: Huddled around a makeshift stove in a disused building, the children of Gaza surviving as best they can in what passes here for a safe house. Then, outside, while others played, this happened.

Another Israeli air strike close by. The truth is, nowhere is safe in Gaza right now. It’s a desperate place for children at the best of times.

Israel insists it doesn’t target children. Rather, it blame Hamas fighters who hide among them. But war like this seldom spares the innocent. And while daily now we see the physical damage done to tiny bodies, what we never see is the torment inflicted upon their minds.

ABDULLAH SHHADEH, doctor: It is a disaster. Actually, these children coming with blood on their face, on their bodies. They are carried by some other people. The father is killed or the mother is killed. And the man who is carrying the injured child doesn’t know anything about the child.

MARK AUSTIN: This little boy filmed by our cameraman in hospital survived, and so too, in a nearby bed, is 14-year-old Abdul Hai. But what nightmares will they suffer when they recover?

Doctors say 35 percent of the children in Gaza suffer high levels of trauma, and that was before the latest onslaught. At the so-called safe house, the children are settling down for another night of fear.

“Of course we’re afraid of the shelling,” says Muhammad, “especially because we’ve seen mutilated bodies. All day long, we’re terrified, and we just stay awake,” due to the sound of fighter bombers and war.

JULIET BREMNER: This time she’s escaped with her life, but the latest rocket attack on southern Israel leaves an elderly lady deeply traumatized. The Hamas missiles are still coming, deeper into Israel than ever before.

These are the remains of rockets fired at the town of Netivot in the last nine days and the reason why Israel says it had to send troops into Gaza.

Twenty-year-old Nathaniel Halag was among the first casualties, shot in the thigh when his brigade was ambushed.

NATHANIEL HALAG, Israeli soldier: The fire and the bombing, and the — not easy. No easy.

ORTAL HALAG, soldier’s sister: I was very worried. When they entered Saturday night, I really — I felt bad for this, but I know that we don’t have a choice, actually, because they’re bombing Ashkelon and Ashdod and Yavne. And there will be not be — there is no end to this until the troops will enter there.

JULIET BREMNER: In the next room was Yoad Kaplan. His family also insisted this was a sacrifice they had to make.

FREDA KAPLAN, soldier’s mother: We understood it was something that had had to be done. But on a personal level, when it’s your own child and it’s your little boy who’s the soldier, and you taught him how to behave to other people and what to do, and he’s not the type of person who goes out gun-happy with it, and starts playing around, and all of a sudden here he is.

JULIET BREMNER: While the missiles continue to hit their homes, the Israelis seem certain to hold their nerve.

The Grad rocket that hit this house was carrying around 10 kilos of explosive, enough to force its way straight through the roof, through the building, and down about three feet into the ground. The woman living here got out to a shelter. Otherwise, she’d almost certainly have been killed.

Mounting civilian casualties

Matthew Levitt
Wash. Institute for Near East Policy
My feeling is that this will not be a long operation. I don't think the Israelis want it to be a long operation. But they clearly feel the need to do what has to be done to prevent Hamas from firing rockets at their civilian population centers.

MARGARET WARNER: For two views on the escalating Gaza conflict and where the ground war might lead, we go now to Matthew Levitt, director of counterterrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Until recently, he held a Treasury Department intelligence post focusing on terrorist networks.

And Mark Perry, co-director of the Conflicts Forum, a British-American organization that promotes engagement between the West and political Islamist groups, including Hamas. He meets frequently with leaders of Hamas in the region.

Welcome to you both. The civilian casualties which we've just seen in these two tape pieces have been mounting, especially since the ground operation began this weekend.

Matt Levitt, why did Israel go in on the ground a week into this conflict?

MATTHEW LEVITT, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: I think they would have preferred to have been able to stay with an air campaign, fewer risks to their own soldiers, but the rockets continued, and they wanted to do two main things.

One is to take the areas where the rockets were being launched from and control them for at least a period of time. The second is to be able to go in and, with very specific intelligence, take out caches of weapons in certain houses, raid houses, particularly of Hamas leaders which were being used as places to plan attacks or to store weapons, and then to arrest or kill key Hamas leaders responsible for these ongoing attacks.

My feeling is that this will not be a long operation. I don't think the Israelis want it to be a long operation. But they clearly feel the need to do what has to be done to prevent Hamas from firing rockets at their civilian population centers.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Perry, the Hamas leaders vowed that, if Israel went in on the ground, Gaza would prove to be a graveyard for the Israeli soldiers. Do the Hamas fighters have the ability to carry out that threat?

MARK PERRY, The Conflicts Forum: Well, Hamas is not Hezbollah, and this is not the 2006 war, and we remember that Hezbollah exacted a heavy toll on the Israeli army. I don't think we're going to see that now.

But certainly by pulling the Israelis into some of these more populated areas and conducting an operation on the ground, I think it's possible that Israel will sustain very heavy casualties and, at some point, they may become politically untenable and we'll start moving to a cease-fire. We're not there yet, but I would expect this to continue for at least another 72 hours.

MARGARET WARNER: Staying with you, you know the Hamas leadership, or certainly some Hamas officials, I think better than anyone we've had on our program so far.

Explain their thinking in -- did they intend to provoke this conflict in the first place in mid-December, when they intensified the rocket attacks on southern Israel? That has been one popular conception, certainly in many Israeli and foreign circles.

MARK PERRY: That is a popular notion, but it doesn't accord with the facts. During the six months of the cease-fire, there were 153 violations of the cease-fire by Israel, and 36 Palestinians in Gaza were killed by Israeli forces. Most important of all, the economic siege of Gaza continued.

Hamas officials went to Egypt, asked them to intervene to stop the siege, or they would have to take action. No one listened, so they did increase their rocket fire.

But if we want to assess blame here, this is not all on Hamas. They've suffered enormous casualties. The people in Gaza are suffering. That's not in their interest. What they wanted to do was lift the siege and allow the Palestinian people to breathe, and they're hoping that this will be the result.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think Hamas was surprised by Israel's reaction?

MATTHEW LEVITT: I think they were surprised by the intensity of the reaction, but I think that they certainly wanted to goad Israel into a reaction. It was Hamas that broke off negotiations with Fatah that were being moderated by Egypt.

And so to say that this was the only thing left to them, shelling Israeli civilians, really belies the facts.

There were opportunities moderated by Egypt to negotiate open crossings. There were humanitarian goods that were flowing. This is why Egypt has put the blame for the end of the cease-fire squarely at the feet of Hamas.

Potential for reaching a cease-fire

Mark Perry
Conflicts Forum
We're already seeing movement in the international community towards a cease-fire because of concern over the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.

MARGARET WARNER: Speaking of negotiations, of course, now we have diplomats from all over the world flying into the region, trying to negotiate some sort of a truce. But does Israel have any incentive right now to negotiate a cease-fire?

MATTHEW LEVITT: Not so long as Hamas remains capable of shelling certainly the Grad, which is the smaller Katyusha version, and the full Katyushas that can hit Ashdod or Ashkelon or Beersheba.

MARGARET WARNER: These are some of the Israeli towns that...

MATTHEW LEVITT: Large Israeli cities. You know, when you hear Israeli officials saying they want to end all rocket attacks, I don't think that's actually true.

And if you hear kind of the lower-level military officials, they're clear that they want to minimize these attacks. It's not a zero sum.

But I think they also clearly want to undermine Hamas' ability to govern in Gaza in such a way that they smuggle in weapons to target Israelis and put Gazan civilians at risk.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you agree that really, for right now, Israel has no particular incentive to negotiate a cease-fire? And do the mounting civilian casualties provide or furnish a pressure on them internationally to do so?

MARK PERRY: Well, there's no question in my mind that Israel wants to end the rocket fire, and they will -- and they will do that. But how do you do it? Do you do it with a ground operation like the kind they've launched? No, you're going to have to have international monitors or some kind of guarantees in there.

Hamas won't accept that unless the borders are open. That's the sign of sovereignty. They need to have economic relief.

And will the civilian casualties bring pressure on Israel? Absolutely. We're already seeing movement in the international community towards a cease-fire because of concern over the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.

MARGARET WARNER: So how would you rate the prospects for a negotiated cease-fire in the near term? And how would it happen?

MATTHEW LEVITT: I think that this violence is going to continue, as Mark said, probably for at least another 72 hours. The Israelis, I think, feel that they need that much time to finish sweeping out, taking out caches of weapons, in particular, and that they can do and can only do with a ground incursion.

And then I think they're going to embrace an international effort to pursue a cease-fire, but one that doesn't go back to the status quo ante, where Hamas could fire rockets at will.

That requires two things: one, having monitors; and, two, in particular, having monitors at the Rafah border crossings, really, the whole eight-miles border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, to deal with the whole tunnel-smuggling issue.

It's one thing to be able to get in humanitarian goods. It's another to be able to get in what's estimated over the six months of the cease-fire 80 tons of weaponry.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you rate the prospects for something happening in the near term?

MARK PERRY: Well, I think it's going to take a while. Like I said, it's going to take three, maybe even seven days for this current operation to end.

But I think, at the end of that, at the end of this military operation, we're going to see international intervention for a peacekeeping force that will end this rocket fire.

But I think that -- you know, the red line here for Hamas is they need economic relief. And without economic relief, they'll keep fighting, and they're certainly capable of doing that.

Who speaks for Hamas?

Matthew Levitt
Wash. Institute for Near East Policy
[Y]ou have on the ground individuals who could negotiate for Hamas, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, or others, but he's only going to be in position to do that if the leaders of the Hamas military wing empower him to do so.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain something to us, Mark Perry, about Hamas. They really have a split leadership. There's leadership in Gaza, and there's leadership in Damascus. Who speaks for Hamas? And does that make a difference in terms of how hard-line a position they will take?

MARK PERRY: Well, this is an issue that continues and that you'll hear Israelis talk about and the Israeli government talk about that, actually, there is a split leadership.

There isn't a split leadership. There is broad consensus within the Hamas organization on this policy and on this program.

The Damascus leadership is, frankly, quite more moderate and a lot more political than the Gaza leadership. They're working hard here for a cease-fire, but they also want economic relief for their people.

So I think it's quite exaggerated to say there's a split in the Hamas leadership. There are disagreements, and there are discussions, but there's no split.

MARGARET WARNER: But I meant, as a practical matter, who's in position to negotiate this truce and with whom do they negotiate?

MATTHEW LEVITT: Well, you have on the ground individuals who could negotiate for Hamas, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, or others, but he's only going to be in position to do that if the leaders of the Hamas military wing empower him to do so, people like Ahmed Jabari, who, as of August of this year, won a seat on the political committee of Hamas in Gaza.

You had a military personnel almost-takeover of the political echelon within Gaza, controlling the executive force militia and the Qassam Brigades, and that really empowers them significantly.

Weighing effects on Hamas' power

Mark Perry
Conflicts Forum
[Hamas has] great influence. And their leadership in Damascus, led by Khaled Mashal, wants that, too. And those are the people who are going to eventually have a final say in negotiating the cease-fire.

MARGARET WARNER: When this operation began, the Israeli leadership said very clearly regime change in Gaza was not its objective. Has that changed? Or, in fact, is it now -- I mean, in other words, is it possible to conceive of an agreement that's acceptable to Israel that would include Hamas remaining in power?

MATTHEW LEVITT: I think there is, because I think that the Israelis really didn't want to overthrow Hamas. They wanted to weaken Hamas to the point that Hamas would have to go back to that negotiating table in Egypt and have a serious sit-down with the rest of Palestinian society.

For Israelis, the vast majority of whom want to negotiate a peaceful solution, you can't do that just with the West Bank. You also can't do that when Hamas militants, who are vowed to your destruction, are controlling Gaza.

Israel didn't want to take in Fatah on the back of their tanks and just deploy them in Gaza. They wanted to undermine Hamas' ability certainly to shoot rockets at Israelis, but also to effectively govern Gaza, given the fact that they took over Gaza in what some consider a coup, in any event.

MARGARET WARNER: How plausible does that sound to you, Hamas remaining in power, surviving this, but being more cooperative with the other faction of the Palestinians?

MARK PERRY: It's hard now to gauge how cooperative they will be. They've suffered as a result of this invasion, but I think my colleague is right. When Israel leaves Gaza, they'll return, and we have to remember an inconvenient truth.

In January of 2006, Hamas won a democratic election of the Palestinian Authority and agreed to a unity government, which was purposely undermined by the United States.

They want to be part of the Palestinian polity. They are. They have great influence. And their leadership in Damascus, led by Khaled Mashal, wants that, too. And those are the people who are going to eventually have a final say in negotiating the cease-fire.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. Mark Perry, Matt Levitt, thank you.

MATTHEW LEVITT: Thank you.

MARK PERRY: Thank you.