Time running out for Israel in Gaza conflict

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  Jan. 16, 2009 at 11:56 AM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 (UPI) -- The fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has now lasted three weeks and looks certain to go well into its fourth. The Israeli army is performing highly effectively on the ground, but it risks losing far more than it has gained because of the growing credibility Hamas is winning on the West Bank.

The real yardstick of Israel's success is not the number of Palestinians they have killed -- more than 1,000 so far, including civilians, for only 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians dead. It is that the Israelis have been able to target and kill an increasing number of Hamas leaders.

On Friday the Israelis reported they had killed 49-year-old Said Siam, Hamas' minister of interior affairs and director of all its armed forces including the elite Executive Force, police force and rudimentary navy. Also killed with Siam were his son and his brother Ia'ad Siam, who ran the Hamas security force and political police that keeps a tight grip on Gaza.

Through early Friday afternoon, the Israeli air force had carried out at least 40 attacks on targets in Gaza. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from South Korea met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his West Bank capital of Ramallah and stressed the urgency of getting a cease-fire fast. "The fighting must stop. We have no time to lose," he said.

However, both Israel and Hamas rejected the U.N. chief's appeal.

"I don't believe that there's a logical expectation in the international community that Israel unilaterally cease fire while Hamas would continue to target cities, trying to kill our people," said Israeli spokesman Mark Regev.

"Despite all the destruction in Gaza, I assure you: We will not accept Israel's conditions for a cease-fire," Hamas' top political leader, Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Damascus, Syria, informed an emergency summit of hard-line Middle East leaders.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knows he has not broken the will of Hamas' leaders to submit to any enforceable longer-term cease-fire, and with Israeli casualties so low and U.S. President George W. Bush still behind him, Olmert hopes to kill more Hamas leaders and degrade its military power in Gaza.

However, Hamas leaders believe their defiance not only is strengthening their long-term hold on Gaza, but also is fatally weakening their most immediate target, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank. The New York Times' Isabel Kershner reported Thursday that Abbas' remaining credibility and effective power on the West Bank are evaporating by the day, with West Bankers raging that he has not acted against Israel in any way in support of the Palestinians in Gaza.

So far, diplomatic support for Hamas across the Middle East has been limited to "the usual suspects." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Syrian President Bashar Assad both attended an emergency summit meeting in Doha, Qatar, to support Meshaal and Hamas. But moderate and traditionally pro-American President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, both of whom have good reason to fear and distrust Hamas and Iran, did not go to it.

Because of the opposition of Abdullah and Mubarak, a number of other Arab leaders did not attend the Doha gathering, and therefore it failed to reach its target of a minimum of 15 heads of government to make it an official summit of the 22-nation Arab League. However, diplomats from Turkey, a major U.S. ally and NATO member, did attend.

Time, nevertheless, is running out for Olmert and the Israelis. President-elect Barack Obama takes office on Tuesday, and his secretary of state-designate, Hillary Clinton, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week she wanted to open a dialogue with Iran. Forcing Israel to pull out of Gaza would be an essential prerequisite to that strategy.

The crumbling of Abbas' remaining small pools of support on the West Bank further undermines him as a credible peace partner for Israel, a development that Olmert's likely successor as Israeli prime minister, right-nationalist Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, may welcome.

But having Hamas replace Abbas and his fading Fatah as the real rulers of the West Bank would not be any kind of triumph for Israel. It would just draw the noose around the embattled Jewish state ever tighter.

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