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Even as the massive aerial attack by Israel on Gaza entered its fourth day, and the number of deaths mounted to nearly 400, the question
troubling people across the world is: what does Israel hope to gain out of this? Officially, the Israeli defense minister has said that it will be a fight to the finish, implying that they want to physically finish off Hamas, the ruling organization in Gaza.
But, as the 2006 invasion of south Lebanon showed, the chances of this happening are remote. In Lebanon, the objective was to finish off Hezbollah. What happened was quite the reverse — Hezbollah emerged wounded but a hero in the eyes of the Arab people, strengthening its position in Lebanon. So what is the endgame in Gaza?
Two factors that are not being talked about much, but have figured prominently in the Israeli calculus are: natural gas and the upcoming elections to the Israeli Knesset, their parliament.
Gaza is a small strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea. Its territorial waters extend to about 35km off the coast. In 1999, the oil firm BG International discovered a huge deposit of natural gas 32km from the Gaza coast. The Gaza Marine gas field contains 1.2 trillion cubic feet of gas valued at over $4 billion. As per the Oslo peace accords, which created Gaza, Israel has security control over air and water around Gaza. So, it wrangled a deal with BG to get access to Gaza Marine gas at cheap rates.
But before the deal could go through, Hamas won the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006. This sparked off a bitter power struggle between Hamas and the pro-west Fatah. Ultimately, the Palestinian Authority split in 2007, with Hamas taking control of Gaza and Fatah taking control of West Bank. One of the first things that Hamas did after getting elected was to declare that the natural gas deal would have to be renegotiated.
Then began the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which prevented much required food and medicines from reaching the hapless Gazans. Crammed into about 360 sq km, 1.5 million Gazans saw their lives crumble into dust. To get food and medicines, Gazans built tunnels under the Israeli barriers, and once even broke through on the Egyptian side. But the Israeli and Egyptian army
tamped them down.
It appears that the current Israeli move is to try and turn the Gazans against Hamas, paving the way for a more pliable administration, so that the gas deal will go through. Reports from Israel indicate that preparations for this attack were underway since several months ago, with the ceasefire offered by Israel being just a ploy to lull Hamas.
In addition, the coming elections in Israel are predicted to see a tough challenge to the Kadima party-led government of Ehud Olmert by the hardline Likud party, led by Benjamin Netahnyu. Even within Kadima, Olmert is facing a challenge from foreign minister Tzipi Livni. Olmert has come under much criticism for the botched invasion of Lebanon in 2006. Many see the Gaza attack as an attempt by Olmert to revitalize his position within Israel.