Israel Ponders Ground Invasion of Gaza After Days of Airstrikes on Hamas Targets

Spurning calls for a cease-fire, Israeli troops appear poised to invade despite very serious risks.

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JERUSALEM—Expectations are that the Israeli tanks and infantry now massed at Gaza's border could soon invade, with air support from the jets that have been bombing the Gaza Strip relentlessly for a week. The cease-fire being called for by much of the world appears not to be in the cards for now—sufficiently attractive neither to a Hamas regime eager for a chance to strike at Israeli soldiers in much closer proximity nor to an Israeli government bolstered by its military performance so far.

"We did not go into the Gaza operation only to end it while rocket fire continues," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are firing an average of nearly 60 rockets a day at southern Israeli cities, so far killing three civilians and a soldier and throwing a fearful shadow over the lives of nearly a million Israelis. In Gaza, some 400 Palestinians have been killed—mainly Hamas terrorists and government functionaries but also many civilians—and life for 1.5 million Gazans has become an abject horror.

The only entity with the power to force a cease-fire on Israel is the United States, but the Bush administration is seeking a "durable" truce, and it's unlikely that Washington's definition of "durable," which it hasn't spelled out, would be to Hamas's liking.

For their part, Hamas leaders have said that they would consider a cease-fire only if Israel stopped its military attacks and lifted its nearly 2½ year siege of the strip, neither of which Israel is willing to do. The only power that might be able to force Hamas into accepting a cease-fire would be its backer Iran, but Iran has shown no inclination to nudge Hamas in America's direction.

Militarily, Operation Cast Lead has been going Israel's way. Hamas's war machine has been hurt, while Israeli losses have been minimal. The prewar fears of 200 rockets a day falling on southern Israel, causing heavy civilian casualties, have not been borne out. The home front is holding up strongly. Polls show the war getting as much as 90 percent public support. The Israeli media are on board.

So Israel's leaders appear to be in favor of pushing on—perhaps by sending in ground forces to take out the Gazan fighters and arsenal that are too well hidden for the jets to hit. Israel's goal is to cripple Hamas's military so badly that it no longer has the physical ability to fire many rockets at Israel, nor the will to try and rebuild.

This is a tall order, but, given the way the war has gone so far, Israelis seem convinced that it's doable. However, there are grave dangers to escalation.

For one, a fight against guerrillas in Gaza's cities and refugee camps will raise Israel's casualty toll, possibly by a large margin, and this would diminish support for the war and make it harder to fight. That's why Israeli intelligence officials reportedly figure that Hamas is actually eager for a ground invasion.

Then there's the question of who would take over the Gaza Strip from a decimated Hamas government. Certainly not Israel's and America's favorite, the Palestinian Authority, led in the West Bank by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayad. As Hamas's bitter rivals, they're despised as collaborators more than ever today by Gaza's population. The combination of a power vacuum at the top, demands for revenge in the streets, and a siege around the borders certainly doesn't seem to be a recipe for pacifying Gaza, which is volatile in the best of times.

And though Israel is confident that it is fighting Islamic radicalism with the tacit support of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the moderate Arab world, the threat to moderate Arab regimes actually seems to be on the rise, judging by the protests spreading throughout the region. The catalyst is the images of lifeless children being pulled from the Gazan rubble that are filling Middle Eastern TV screens.

Militarily, Israel may be winning in Gaza, but it is Hamas, the Middle East's new martyr, that appears to be winning hearts and minds.