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In the last days before Israel imposed a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza to avoid embarrassing the incoming Obama administration, it upped its assault, driving troops deeper into Gaza City, intensifying its artillery bombardment and creating thousands more displaced people.
Israel's military strategy in Gaza, even in what its officials were calling the "final act," followed a blueprint laid down during the Lebanon war more than two years ago.
Then, Israel destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure in a month of intensive air strikes. Even in the war's last few hours, as a cease-fire was being finalized, Israel fired more than a million cluster bombs over south Lebanon, apparently in the hope that the area could be made as uninhabitable as possible.
(While this number seems hard to believe, consider this: It requires 1,700 shells to disperse about a million bombs. Most were fired from tanks, of which Israel had dozens lined up along the border. It isn't too hard to imagine, say, 50 tanks each firing 34 shells into Lebanon over the course of a few hours. According to the New York Times, Israel has a multiple-launch rocket system that can fire 12 shells in a minute.)
Similarly, Israel's destruction of Gaza continued with unrelenting vigor to the very last moment, even though, according to reports in the Israeli media, the air force exhausted what it called its "bank of Hamas targets" in the first few days of fighting.
The military sidestepped the problem by widening its definition of Hamas-affiliated buildings. Or as one senior official explained: "There are many aspects of Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum because everything is connected, and everything supports terrorism against Israel."
That included mosques, universities, most government buildings, the courts, 25 schools, 20 ambulances and several hospitals, as well as bridges, roads, 10 electricity-generating stations, sewage lines and 1,500 factories, workshops and shops.
Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah estimate the damage so far at $1.9 billion, pointing out that at least 21,000 apartment buildings need repairing or rebuilding, forcing 100,000 Palestinians into refugeedom once again. In addition, 80 percent of all agricultural infrastructure and crops were destroyed. The PA has described its estimate as conservative.
None of this will be regretted by Israel. In fact, the general devastation, far from being unfortunate collateral damage, has been the offensive's unstated goal. Israel has sought the political, as well as military, emasculation of Hamas through the widespread destruction of Gaza's infrastructure and economy.
This is known as the "Dahiya Doctrine," named after a suburb of Beirut that was almost leveled during Israel's attack on Lebanon in summer 2006. The doctrine was encapsulated in a phrase used by Dan Halutz, Israel's chief of staff at the time. He said Lebanon's bombardment would "turn back the clock 20 years."
The commanding officer in Israel's south, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, echoed those sentiments on the Gaza offensive's first day. The aim, he said, was to "send Gaza decades into the past."
Beyond these sound bites, Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the head of Israel's northern command, clarified in October the practical aspects of the strategy: "What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. This is not a recommendation. This is a plan."
In the interview, Eisenkot was discussing the next round of hostilities with Hezbollah. However, the doctrine was intended for use in Gaza, too. Gabriel Siboni, a colonel in the reserves, set out the new "security concept" in an article published by Tel Aviv University's Institute of National Security Studies two months before the assault on Gaza. Conventional military strategies for waging war against states and armies, he wrote, could not defeat subnational resistance movements, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, that have deep roots in the local population.
The goal instead was to use "disproportionate force," thereby "inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes." Siboni identified the chief target of Israel's rampages as decision-makers and the power elite, including "economic interests and the centers of civilian power that support the [enemy] organization."
The best Israel could hope for against Hamas and n, Siboni conceded, was a cease-fire on improved terms for Israel and delaying the next confrontation by leaving "the enemy floundering in expensive, long-term processes of reconstruction."
In the case of Gaza's lengthy reconstruction, however, Israel says it hopes not to repeat the mistakes of Lebanon. Then, Hezbollah, aided by Iranian funds, further bolstered its reputation among the local population by quickly moving to finance the rebuilding of Lebanese homes destroyed by Israel.
According to the Israeli media, the foreign ministry has already assembled a task force for "the day after" to ensure neither Hamas nor Iran take the credit for Gaza's reconstruction.
Israel wants all aid to be channeled either through the Palestinian Authority or international bodies. Sealing off Gaza, by preventing smuggling through tunnels under the border with Egypt, is an integral part of this strategy.
Much to Israel's satisfaction, the rebuilding of Gaza is likely to be even slower than might have been expected.
Diplomats point out that even if Western aid flows to the Palestinian Authority, it will have little effect if Israel maintains the blockade, curbing imports of steel, cement and money. And international donors are already reported to be tired of funding building projects in Gaza only to see them destroyed by Israel a short time later.
With more than a hint of exasperation, Norway Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere summed up the general view of donors last week: "Shall we give once more for the construction of something which is being destroyed, reconstructed and destroyed?"
This brief report, byBarry Schweid, was published by the Associated Press, January 21, 2009.
WASHINGTON -- President Obama is preparing to tap George Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic leader, for a top diplomatic post for the Middle East.
Officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the new administration is preparing to announce the appointment shortly. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not been authorized to disclose it publicly.
Mitchell would assist Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's pick for secretary of State. The Senate was expected to vote on Clinton's nomination Wednesday.
The parameters of Mitchell's role were not immediately clear. Recent reports said Dennis Ross, longtime U.S. negotiator, would be named an adviser to Clinton.
Mitchell, 75, took on difficult diplomatic assignments during President Bill Clinton's presidency.
This article was published by Agence France Presse, January 21, 2009.
New President Barack Obama on Wednesday made a flurry of calls to Arab and Israeli leaders in a signal that Middle East peacemaking is a top priority following an Israeli offensive in Gaza.
A Palestinian spokesman said that Obama had told Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas that he was the recipient of his first call as the 44th US president.
The White House source confirmed the calls, on condition of anonymity, and said Obama also telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab countries to have signed peace treaties with Israel, are key mediators between the Jewish state and the Palestinians, including in efforts to clinch a lasting ceasefire in Gaza.
More than a week after Israel launched its December 27 assault in the Gaza Strip to halt rocket fire from the Islamist movement Hamas, Obama promised to engage in Middle East diplomacy "immediately" upon taking office January 20.
Obama promised Abbas to work toward a "durable peace" in the Middle East, Abba's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
"He said he would deploy every possible effort to achieve peace as quickly as possible," the spokesman added. "President Abbas urged him to work towards peace based on international resolutions."
A close Abbas aide admitted surprise at the speed with which Obama moved.
"We were not expecting such a quick call from President Obama but we knew how serious he is about the Palestinian problem," said Yasser Abed Rabbo.
"The speed of the call is a message signalling to all concerned parties that the Palestinian people has one address and that's president Abbas."
The Islamist Hamas movement ousted Abbas' Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip in 2007, deepening divisions between the two camps.
"It also shows the level of seriousness that we hope to see translated into practice in the future," Abed Rabbo said.
"This message after the Israeli massacre in Gaza shows that President Obama realizes that the only way out of this tragedy is a political settlement guaranteeing the rights of the Palestinian people."
He was referring to the 22-day Israeli assault on the strip that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead, including at least 400 children.
Hillary Clinton, Obama's choice for secretary of state who is expected to face a Senate vote Wednesday for her confirmation, said recently that she would rule out engaging with Hamas.
The Senate will hold a roll call vote on Clinton's appointment the day after Obama was inaugurated, a Democratic leadership source said.
Obama then plans to name former Northern Ireland peacemaker George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy, aides told the Washington Post, adding the move is to send a signal the new administration wants to deal quickly with the conflict.
Mitchell, 75, is a retired US senator who steered the tough negotiations that led to lasting peace in Northern Ireland. He is the son of a Lebanese immigrant mother, and of an Irish father who when orphaned was adopted by a Lebanese family.
WASHINGTON, Jan 10 (IPS) - Although the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli leaders have depicted the ongoing crisis in Gaza as part of a larger struggle against Iran and its "proxies", Tehran's involvement with the Palestinians is rather limited.
Despite their condemnation of Israel's actions and the waves of pro-Hamas demonstrations across Iran, its rulers have no intention of escalating the crisis, let alone becoming directly engaged.
Instead, their main intention is to utilise their regional influence in favour of an "honourable truce" that would give the Islamist group a face-saving exit from the war.
While Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has spoken favourably about martyrdom in defence of the Palestinian cause, and tens of thousands of Iranians have reportedly signed up as volunteers to fight Israel, nevertheless Tehran has made it clear that no one will be sent with the sanction of the state.
That was made abundantly clear to a group of such volunteers who had staged a sit-in at Tehran's Mehrabad airport last week. "Iran's support [for Palestinians] is moral, and, if you intend to be dispatched, you would be imposing your opinion on the government, which has its own priorities," Davoud Ahmadinejad, a kinsman of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told them.
Indeed, Iran already has its hands full with the evolving situations in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, and the "out-of-area" Gaza crisis does not directly affect the country's core national-security interests. This is particularly so since Tehran's leaders are by and large convinced that Israel will not be able to crush Hamas to which, according to unconfirmed reports, Iran provides a relatively small amount of assistance amounting to around 25 million dollars a month.
"This conflict has a 60-year history [and is] rooted in the oppression of Palestinian people," President Ahmadinejad said during a recent press conference on the Gaza crisis in which he predicted that the Palestinian resistance "will grow stronger".
That is a view shared by many senior political figures associated with his hard-line faction, such as Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the right-wing daily, 'Kayhan', who last week predicted that Israel will soon find itself in a "quagmire in Gaza".
The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, similarly predicted a "Hamas victory" made possible by the group's discipline, resilience, and its "application of lessons learned from the resistance by Hezbollah" in its 34-day war with Israel during the summer of 2006.
Of course, not everyone among the leadership in Iran's faction-ridden politics agrees about the short- and long-term repercussions for Iran of the Gaza crisis.
"So far, the result is promising and Hamas's ability to use its anti-tank Staggers to knock out some Israeli tanks is a bad omen for the invading army," said a prominent Tehran University political science professor who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity. He added, however, that Hamas may lose militarily "in the short term" but emerge from the conflict in a strengthened position, especially vis-à-vis its rival, Fatah.
At the same time, however, there is concern that Israel may succeed in imposing a security zone inside Gaza or bisecting it into two or three isolated sectors, not unlike the increasingly fragmented West Bank. The leadership is also concerned that Egypt, if it succeeds in brokering a ceasefire, may yet emerge as a dominant factor in Gaza to Hamas's detriment, thus tilting the balanced of power there in favour of Fatah.
If that indeed is the result, according to some analysts, such as Morad Veisi, affiliated with the reformist Islamic Participation Front, the net result would be a "new alignment in the Middle East" that would pit "Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan against Iran and its allies".
These considerations have spurred Iran to engage in a flurry of diplomacy designed to bolster Hamas's chances of gaining an "honourable truce". This has ranged from Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's wide-ranging telephone diplomacy to Ahmadinejad's dispatch of 22 special envoys to Iran's regional neighbours to enlist diplomatic support for Hamas's basic demand that any ceasefire include Israel's commitment to end its economic siege of the territory.
Particularly notable has been shuttle diplomacy carried out by two of Khamenei's closest advisers, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani (who conferred with Hamas leaders in Damascus this week and ripped the Egypt-French proposed truce as highly defective), and Saeed Jalili, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, to various regional capitals.
Jalili's trip this past week to Turkey, the scene of huge pro-Palestinian rallies from the outset of Israel's military campaign, was regarded as especially significant given the warming trend in relations between the two countries, much of it due to Iran's increasing sales of gas to Ankara and the latter's growing "eastward" orientation in reaction to the European Union's (EU) long-standing and apparently increasing reluctance to admit it as a member. It was in Ankara that Jalili announced that Tehran was "prepared to cooperate with the world community to bring an end to the Gaza crisis".
A traditional Israeli ally which has acted most recently as an interlocutor between Israel and Syria, Turkey is now seen by Iran as a key player prepared to wield its influence on behalf of Hamas, in light of the Turkish leaders' pro-Palestinian statements in the wake of the Gaza crisis.
Iran's leaders also believe they are reaping the benefits of their blistering criticism early in the Gaza crisis of Arab "inaction" in defence of Gaza and Hamas. Noting that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Kuwait and Qatar, in particular, have issued increasingly harsh criticism of Israel's offensive, Iran is taking credit for the evolution of their views even while it intensifies pressure on Egypt to follow a similar path.
Indeed, as repeatedly noted by spokesmen for Iran's Foreign Ministry over the past week, Tehran is still awaiting a response to a recent offer by Mottaki to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza via Egypt.
*Kaveh Afrasiabi is the author of several books on Iran's foreign and nuclear policies, including most recently, "Iran's Foreign Policy After September 11," co-authored with former deputy foreign minister, Abbas Maleki.
The incoming Obama administration is prepared to abandon George Bush's doctrine of isolating Hamas by establishing a channel to the Islamist organisation, sources close to the transition team say.
The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush presidency's ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.
The Guardian has spoken to three people with knowledge of the discussions in the Obama camp. There is no talk of Obama approving direct diplomatic negotiations with Hamas early on, but he is being urged by advisers to initiate low-level or clandestine approaches, and there is growing recognition in Washington that the policy of ostracising Hamas is counter-productive. A tested course would be to start contacts through Hamas and the US intelligence services, similar to the secret process through which the US engaged with the PLO in the 1970s. Israel did not become aware of the contacts until much later.
A UN resolution was agreed last night at the UN, calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire between Hamas and Israeli forces in Gaza. The resolution was passed, though the US, represented by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, abstained.
Richard Haass, a diplomat under both Bush presidents who was named by a number of news organisations this week as Obama's choice for Middle East envoy, supports low-level contacts with Hamas provided there is a ceasefire in place and a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation emerges.
Another potential contender for a foreign policy role in the Obama administration suggested that the president-elect would not be bound by the Bush doctrine of isolating Hamas.
"This is going to be an administration that is committed to negotiating with critical parties on critical issues," the source said.
There are a number of options that would avoid a politically toxic scenario for Obama of seeming to give legitimacy to Hamas.
"Secret envoys, multilateral six-party talk-like approaches. The total isolation of Hamas that we promulgated under Bush is going to end," said Steve Clemons, the director of the American Strategy Programme at the New America Foundation. "You could do something through the Europeans. You could invent a structure that is multilateral. It is going to be hard for the neocons to swallow," he said. "I think it is going to happen."
But one Middle East expert close to the transition team said: "It is highly unlikely that they will be public about it."
The two weeks since Israel began its military campaign against Gaza have heightened anticipation about how Obama intends to deal with the Middle East. He adopted a strongly pro-Israel position during the election campaign, as did his erstwhile opponent and choice for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. But it is widely thought Obama would adopt a more even-handed approach once he is president.
His main priority now, in the remaining days before his inauguration, is to ensure the crisis does not rob him of the chance to set his own foreign policy agenda, rather than merely react to events.
"We will be perceived to be weak and feckless if we are perceived to be on the margins, unable to persuade the Israelis, unable to work with the international community to end this," said Aaron David Miller, a former state department adviser on the Middle East.
"Unless he is prepared to adopt a policy that is tougher, fairer and smarter than both of his predecessors you might as well hang a closed-for-the-season sign on any chance of America playing an effective role in defusing the current crisis or the broader crisis," he said.
Obama has defined himself in part by his willingness to talk to America's enemies. But the president-elect would be wary of being seen to give legitimacy to Hamas as a consequence of the war in Gaza.
Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at George town University's school of foreign service, said it was unlikely that Obama would move to initiate contacts with Hamas unless the radical faction in Damascus was crippled by the conflict in Gaza. "This would really be dependent on Hamas's military wing having suffered a real, almost decisive, drubbing."
Even with such caveats, there is growing agreement, among Republicans as well as Democrats, on the need to engage Hamas to achieve a sustainable peace in the Middle East – even among Obama's close advisers. In an article published on Wednesday on the website Foreign Affairs, but apparently written before the fighting in Gaza, Haass, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote: "If the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas continues to hold and a Hamas-PA reconciliation emerges, the Obama administration should deal with the joint Palestinian leadership and authorise low-level contact between US officials and Hamas in Gaza." The article was written with Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and an adviser to Hillary Clinton.
Obama has said repeatedly that restoring America's image in the world would rank among the top priorities of his administration, and there has been widespread praise for his choice of Clinton as secretary of state and Jim Jones, the former Marine Corps commandant, as his national security adviser.
He is expected to demonstrate that commitment to charting a new foreign policy within days when he is expected to name a roster of envoys to take charge of key foreign policy areas: Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, India-Pakistan, and North Korea.
Obama has frustrated and confused those who had been looking for a more evenhanded approach to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict by his refusal to make any substantive comment on Israel's military campaign on Gaza, nearly two weeks on.
He said on Wednesday: "We cannot be sending a message to the world that there are two different administrations conducting foreign policy.
"Until I take office, it would be imprudent of me to start sending out signals that somehow we are running foreign policy when I am not legally authorised to do so."