Israel's key problem at this point in time is the violent anarchy reigning in the Palestinian arena. Sderot and western Negev communities are not sustaining Qassam rocket fire because the Palestinians hope to secure diplomatic-national objectives through their attacks, but rather, because this serves local political and extortion efforts by several dozens of clans and armed groups fighting each other over economic interests and political prestige.
The Qassam attacks on Sderot in the past 24 hours also fall into this category of "anarchy exportation." The Qassam fire is a means utilized by Hamas in order to grant validity to its claim that it was not Hamas members who killed Mahmoud Abbas' presidential guard forces, but rather, Israel. In simple terms, Hamas is "exporting" to Israel the responsibility for the massacre carried out by Palestinians against other Palestinians in order to avoid criticism and sanctions from moderate Arab states, and particularly from Saudi Arabia.
Hamas is also hoping that a harsh Israeli response for the Qassam attacks will lift the impression of Hamas' wild attack on Abbas' presidential guard on the Arab street and in public opinion.
Because of this anarchy, there is no Palestinian element that can take upon itself any kind of diplomatic, security, or economic commitment. Control of the street and arms have shifted to dozens of armed groups and clans, with each one clinging to its own agenda and narrow interests. (Intelligence officials have identified 47 such groups, with some working on behalf of Iran and others on behalf of global Jihad. These groups have an interest in sparking an all-out confrontation with Israel.)
Even if Israel chooses to undertake drastic measures such as preventing electricity and water supply from Gaza residents, while indiscriminately bombing launch sites, there would still be nobody on the Palestinian side able to stop the Qassam attacks. The only thing that will happen is that Israel will face condemnation and be isolated in international public opinion. This may prevent Israel from carrying out a large-scale operation, once it decides to do so.
Some will say that Israel must not react forcefully to events in the Gaza Strip and certainly not embark on a broad military operation, in order not to unite the infighting Palestinians. This is a logical argument if we're talking about intra-Palestinian clashes where Israelis are not directly targetted and assuming Abbas' loyalists would emerge victorious rather than Hamas. Yet this is not the case. The rivalry between Palestinian factions is causing casualties in Sderot.
Limited operations only partial solution
As to Abbas loyalists, their chances of overcoming Hamas in a Gaza Strip military clash are slim to none. Hamas and its protégés (with the assistance of Iran and al-Qaida) are the ones that would emerge victorious from an intra-Palestinian struggle. Therefore, those who think that Israel should allow the Palestinians to exhaust and eliminate each other fail to understand that the Palestinian anarchy exacts a heavy toll on Israeli citizens as well. This toll will only become worse with the passage of time. The events of the last 24 hours are only a sample of what's to come.
Under current circumstances, one consideration must guide the Israeli government: How do we prevent casualties among western Negev residents as a result of Qassam attacks and how do we thwart the digging of tunnels by the Palestinians and a worse situation in the future as a result of Hamas' rapid strengthening.
The most effective and virtually only modus operandi to achieve these objectives is an occupation of wide sections of the Gaza Strip. Once the IDF controls most Gaza territory it would be able to, in conjunction with the Shin Bet, gather intelligence information and apply it in anti-terror operations while proceeding to destroy terror infrastructures. Meanwhile, the digging of a seawater tunnel would curb the smuggling through Gaza's Philadelphi route.
Any operation that achieves less than that would not curb the Qassam rocket fire or the boost in Hamas' power. Meanwhile, limited aerial and ground operations, which would be limited to launch sites for example, would subject the IDF to anti-tank rockets and ultimately end up with casualties. Eventually the international community would force us to exit the Strip without the IDF achieving its objectives.
Thorough diplomatic preparation work
However, in order to carry out such a large-scale operation effectively, a very large military force would be required to stay in the Strip for many months. We are talking about several combat divisions. Any force that is smaller than that would be "swallowed up" within Gaza's crowded population.
Therefore, a wide-scale, extended reservist call-up would be required, while Israel would also be facing the heavy economic burden of providing vital services and goods to Gaza residents. Another problem: How do we convince international public opinion not to press us to leave Gaza too early? And the main problem - how do we complete such an operation without the situation in the Strip reverting to its original state once the IDF leaves?
We'll begin with the end: In order for the Gaza Strip situation not to revert to its original state, a thorough and decisive diplomatic and public relations campaign is required before the IDF embarks on the operation. This diplomatic preparation must convince the international community, including Arab states, to send an effective international police force to the Strip in order to maintain order there until the Palestinian Authority stabilizes and is able to rule.
In addition, the Israeli government and public must overcome the "Winograd effect," that is, the lack of faith in the leadership, and allow Olmert and his government to act under the assumption that the score for the Second Lebanon War can be settled later on. The security of Sderot residents is more important.
The government should also decide to earmark significant economic resources to the southern front in order to facilitate the presence of a large military force in the Gaza Strip and a rapid reinforcement campaign of homes in western Negev communities. Resources are also needed to prepare the IDF for its mission thoroughly.
The need for such thorough preparations justified the Israeli restraint at this time in response to Tuesday's rocket barrages. The question is whether the Olmert government will continue to deal with political survival and endless "assessment sessions" or whether it will finally start to act practically.