Gaza: Fight at the End of the Tunnel?

02/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Hamas missiles continue to be fired from the Gaza Strip into Israeli cities during Day 5 of Israel's ground assault into the Gaza Strip, Israel's leaders confront a difficult decision: whether agree to a cease fire before achieving Israel's military or political goals, or broaden the offensive against Hamas.

Paradoxically, Hamas may make that decision easier for Israel's leaders.

Today in Cairo, representatives of Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are meeting to consider a Franco-Egyptian cease fire proposal, which has 3 principal elements: an end to Hamas' indiscriminate missile attacks on Israel; an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza; and an end to Hamas' weapons smuggling from Egyptian controlled Sinai into Gaza.

Whether the Cairo talks will produce a quick end to the fighting depends on several factors: 1) can Israel's military commanders convince Israeli political leaders that more time is needed to substantially decay Hamas' will to fight and establish a more credible deterrence against Hamas' terrorist attacks; 2) whether diplomatic calculations compel Israel to suspend Operation "Cast Lead"; and 3) whether Hamas' political leaders in Gaza can overrule its military wing based in Damascus led by exiled Hamas leader Moussa Abou Marzouk, and agree to a "Hudna" or durable truce. Hamas' local Gaza leaders may embrace a truce to avoid further destruction of Hamas strongholds inside central Gaza City and other towns where Hamas forces are based so that the bulk of its terror militias can survive to fight another day .

Fighting is at a critical stage...Hamas' senior military leaders are lying in wait in the narrow alleyways of Gaza hoping to lure Israeli forces into house to booby-trapped house fighting, where Hamas still maintains substantial stores of missiles, rockets and other stockpiles of ammunition.

Given the difficult choices facing it, it is unlikely Israel will succeed in its goal of completely destroying Hamas' infrastructure and regime without deploying more troops into Gaza City itself and without reoccupying large swaths of the Gaza Strip A lengthy presence in Gaza will surely result in Israel incurring more casualties; and incurring more international wrath as the civilian toll throughout the Gaza Strip mounts. This may be Hamas' hope, but Israel will not take its bait. Israelis know all too well what a substantial reoccupation of Gaza means, and despite the desire to rid itself of Hamas once and for all, I do not envision Israeli flags flying anytime soon over Gaza City.

With so much riding on the success of diplomatic efforts to find a way out the mess, much will depend on finally choking off Hamas' oxygen supply of smuggled weapons and missiles from Iran which it transports into Gaza through the so-called "Philadelphi Corridor" -- an oxymoron if there ever was one--named for the network of hundreds of smuggling tunnels dug under the Egyptian-Gaza border. Without the tunnels by which Hamas smuggles in arms and terrorists, it would eventually become defanged and unable to inflict further significant damage on Israel's southern towns.

The question I have is why hadn't Egyptian authorities -- which control the Sinai-Gaza border area where the tunnels exist and knowing Hamas' sinister plans with the Iranian weaponry it smuggled through the tunnels -- done much more to police the border area and prevent the weapons smuggling in the first place?

Surely, a more muscular Egyptian police and military presence, backed up with Israeli intelligence cooperation and international support perhaps could have prevented Hamas from having the means to resume its missile strikes into Israel on December 19. What was being run through the tunnels during the latest Hamas-Israeli truce was no secret to either the Egyptians or the Israelis. In addition to needed consumer goods, medical supplies, food and other necessities due to Israel's sanctions against Hamas following its military takeover of Gaza last year, Hamas used the 6 month old truce to rearm and enhance its rocket and missile arsenal -- importing more sophisticated Grad Iranian-built missiles -- and send its terrorists to Iran and to Hezbollah in Lebanon for "missile management."

The Egyptians seem paralyzed in the face of what has been going on underneath their noses. Maybe President Mubarak is afraid to confront Hamas for fear of risking the wrath of its paternal domestic supporter -- the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps Mubarak is afraid that if Egypt interfered with Hamas' smuggling, Hamas supporters would launch terror attacks against Egypt -- rather than just on Israel. Or Egypt finds the tunnels a convenient steam valve enabling Palestinians to remain in Gaza rather than busting down the Gazan border into Egypt seeking refuge and relief. Given the complexity of situation it likely constitutes a combination of all these factors.

During its offensive, Israel is using its air force to pulverize the tunnel network, but there are so many of them that it would take a much lengthier Israeli military campaign to cave enough of the underground network and render the terrain sufficiently inhospitable to renewed tunneling.

That is why any ceasefire worth the paper its written on must include an ironclad commitment by Egypt to step up the plate and cooperate fully with Israel to shut Hamas' tunnel network once and for all whatever Hamas' political or military wings decide tomorrow in Cairo. If Cairo needs international help to accomplish this goal -- well, then Mubarak should make that request.

How, then, you ask, will Gazans subsist without the lifeline the tunnel network provides for less sinister purposes? As before, that will largely depend on whether Israel achieves the necessary and entitled quiet on its southern border under an internationally policed and durable cease fire.

If during the Cairo talks Hamas rejects a durable, long-term cease fire that compels it to irrevocably end its missile terror against Israel, well, then the international community will bear witness once again to what Hamas truly represents -- a so-called "democratically elected terror organization" willing to sacrifice the long-term interest of the Palestinian people who deserve something far better than what they endure inside Gaza.

As for Israel, if it decides to embrace the Franco-Egyptian terms despite Hamas' refusal to meet it even halfway, Israel will have further approbation to press on with its offensive until it destroys Hamas' military infrastructure, which unfortunately places defenseless Palestinians further at risk. Whether there is "fight" or "light" at the end of the tunnels will principally depend on who really rules Hamas -- its terrorist military wing or its political wing. Given Hamas' virulent preference for obstinate terrorism no matter the cost to its own citizens, I am afraid Hamas would rather maintain its tunnel vision.