ANALYSIS-Israel to reprise Lebanon war in Gaza?

Sun Dec 28, 2008 12:48pm GMT

(Refiles to fix typo in paragraph 4) By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Goaded by Islamist guerrillas' cross-border attacks, Israel goes to war with a surprise aerial onslaught. Troops and tanks follow, to gain ground and pressure foreign powers into imposing a truce the Israelis can live with. The strategy used by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for an offensive in Lebanon in 2006 could again be deployed against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

But there are big differences in the handling of the military operation in Gaza, which the Israeli air force started pounding on Saturday, and it is not clear how regional stability might benefit, let alone peace talks with Palestinians.

For now, Israeli officials sound satisfied with an operation in Gaza that shows few of the tactical mistakes of the 2006 war on Lebanese Hezbollah.

Fewer than half of Gaza's many dead are civilians, Israeli border towns were better prepared this time for retaliatory rocket fire and the Olmert government has not promised big victories. International censure has so far been largely limited to urging a return to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that expired on Dec 19.

"Israel certainly underwent a lesson-learning process" after Lebanon, cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel told Israel Radio.

Hamas has made a new ceasefire conditional on Israel ending an embargo on Gaza, and Israeli officials have hinted they also want new terms met -- such an end to arms smuggling by Hamas and the release of a captive soldier, Gilad Shalit.

While strikes continue, neither side is giving quarter.

"Hamas knows our demands, and there's no use to talking about them publicly," said one Israeli defence official. "Until Hamas signals that it's ready to back down, all we can do is continue placing a hefty 'price tag' on its rocket attacks."

Israel's relative reticence may mask uncertainty over how far this assault will go. Although its forces have massed on the border, Israel is in no rush for a reoccupation of the congested, poor and deeply hostile Palestinian territory.

That means exhausting a "bank" of Hamas sites that can be bombed by the Israeli air force, although the Lebanon war showed such raids can quickly push up the civilian casualty toll.

"What do we do when the target bank runs out? And what if we end up with another Kafr Qana?" asked one Israeli diplomat, referring to a village where the killing of dozens of unarmed Lebanese drained support for driving back Hezbollah.

CONTINGENCY PLANS

Whereas the Lebanon war ended in a U.N.-brokered ceasefire that beefed up a foreign peacekeeper force in Hezbollah's former heartland, such a presence is considered anathema for Gaza.

"There was talk of it (Gaza peacekeepers) a while back, but nothing happened as no one wanted to contribute troops," said Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. Hamas has long said it would regard any foreign peacekeepers as invaders.

According to the defence official, Israel has contingency plans for a Gaza sweep in which Hamas would be crushed and the territory handed to the Islamists' rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who seeks a peace accord with the Jewish state.

But Palmor dismissed such an idea as "fringe idiocy". It would depict Abbas as little more than an Israeli stooge, and to many Palestinians his credibility is already sapped by his failure to shelve diplomacy altogether over the Gaza violence.

"We want quiet, and for Israelis and Palestinians to be able to address their differences through dialogue," Palmor said, alluding to Hamas's refusal to accept coexistence with Israel.

Hamas has said it will not surrender to Israel, but its top politician in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, signalled on Sunday that the group feels isolated in a region where some states dislike the axis formed by Hamas with its Iranian and Syrian patrons.

In televised comments apparently intended for Egypt and other Arab countries aligned with the United States, Haniyeh urged a "responsible Arab decision to end the (Gaza) siege".

Egypt, which also borders Gaza, has shown little desire to break with the embargo. Cairo could instead propose that Hamas submit to Abbas's authority, in exchange for which Israel would end the Gaza assault and ease economic restrictions on the territory.

"The sense is that we have to wait to see what Egypt pulls out of its hat," said the Israeli diplomat.

Until then, Israel appears to be targeting the Egypt-Gaza frontier as part of its effort to step up pressure on Hamas.

Hundreds of cross-border tunnels allow the Palestinians to smuggle in arms and commercial goods, circumventing the embargo to a limited degree. Many of those secret passages may have been destroyed by Israel's bombing runs over southern Gaza.

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(Editing by Timothy Heritage)