Is Israel reprising the Lebanon war in Gaza?

By Dan Williams, Reuters UK

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's Gaza offensive, with its unprecedented toll on Palestinian lives and infrastructure, aims to pummel Hamas Islamists into a truce on terms more favorable to the Jewish state's long-term diplomatic goals.

Israeli officials have likened the aerial onslaught launched throughout the Gaza Strip on Saturday to the opening strategy of the 2006 Lebanese war, where a border ambush by Hezbollah guerrillas triggered a devastating surprise bombing campaign.

The fact Israeli troops and tanks then poured into Lebanon, gaining ground and pressuring the international community into imposing a ceasefire, suggests what might come next for Gaza if Hamas does not halt cross-border rocket attacks.

"There are definite similarities to what we are seeing now and the execution of the war in Lebanon," said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Worried foreign powers have urged the resumption of an Egyptian-brokered truce which Hamas, chafing at an ongoing Gaza blockade, called off on December 19. The Israelis have other plans.

They are talking about absolute quiet, rather than the sporadic rocket salvoes which Hamas often used to back up demands for an end to the Gaza embargo or to warn Israel not to attack Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

"We will not allow a return to the last seven years, the bad years," cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel told Israel Radio.

For now, the Gaza assault appears to be largely free of the tactical setbacks that dogged Israel during the Lebanon war.

Fewer than half of Gaza's many dead are civilians, Israeli border towns are better prepared for reprisal barrages and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has avoided promising any big victories.

Yet Hamas, which survived several past Israeli assassination sprees against its leaders and whose rule in Gaza has been absolute since it routed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction there in 2007, still sounds undeterred.

Immiserated by near-constant fighting and privation, Gazans are hard to cow. By contrast, Lebanon in 2006 had enjoyed years of relative quiet and Hezbollah was vying for political support.

"Even if they hang us and our blood spreads on the streets of Gaza, and even if our bodies are dismembered ... we will not make concessions and we will not retreat," Ismail Haniyeh, who heads Hamas's administration in Gaza, said in televised remarks.

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Israel has brushed off Hamas's insistence that any new truce include lifting the embargo. Israeli officials have, further, hinted at their own new terms -- an end to Hamas's arms smuggling and the freeing of a captive soldier, Gilad Shalit

Yet Israel's relative reticence on terms may also mask uncertainty over how far this assault will go.

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 suddenly 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 foreign support for driving back Hezbollah.

Whereas the Lebanon war ended in a U.N.-brokered ceasefire that beefed up a foreign peacekeeper force in Hezbollah's former heartland, Hamas has ruled out such a presence in Gaza.

According to the defense official, Israel has contingency plans for a sweep to crush Hamas and hand over Gaza to Abbas, who, unlike the Islamists, seeks coexistence with Israel.

But Palmor dismissed such an idea as "fringe idiocy": it would risk depicting Abbas as little more than an Israeli stooge.

"We want quiet, and for Israelis and Palestinians to be able to address their differences through dialogue," Palmor said, outlining a scenario that assumes the political primacy of Hamas can be curtailed.

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

Pending that, Israel appears to be targeting the Egypt-Gaza frontier as part of its effort to corner Hamas. Hundreds of smuggling tunnels that have allowed Gazans to circumvent the embargo may have been destroyed by Israel's bombing runs.