By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff

It looks now as if Israel is about to embark on a war in the Gaza Strip. This is not an intention that has been expressed publicly at this stage, but anyone who speaks to senior officers in the Southern Command can be expected to come to a similar conclusion. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz recently instructed the army’s command to complete preparations for a possible major campaign in the Strip. Defense Minister Amir Peretz says that Israel will not allow Gaza to become a second Lebanon, adding that “in Lebanon we already learned the lesson of coming to our senses before the arming [of Hamas in Gaza].” Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal said this week that he heard from the commander of the Gaza Division, Brigadier General Moshe (Chico) Tamir, that the IDF is preparing for war in the Gaza Strip.

According to a situation analysis by Tamir and the head of Southern Command, Major General Yoav Galant, the arms race now going on in Gaza extends beyond the usual game of ping-pong that Israel has been conducting against Palestinian terror and guerrilla organizations in the territories since the outbreak of the second intifada. Ordinarily, the militants specifically introduce new weapons in order to confront whatever the IDF is using against it – and vice versa. Thus the IDF used armored personnel carriers (APCs) in the Strip’s built-up areas until the Palestinians blew up two such vehicles in May 2004 with RPG rockets. The IDF then began to use better-protected vehicles. And the Palestinians are trying to develop more lethal bombs.

However, Hamas is now planning to accomplish several moves in one fell swoop in Gaza. The goal of the enemy, according to Southern Command, is to establish a new deterrent balance in Gaza. On the one hand, to stockpile large quantities of rockets that will enable it to initiate serious bombardment if necessary, like Hezbollah’s attacks on the Galilee. And on the other hand, to entrench itself – to establish a defense network in every community, with defined missions in times of emergency, and to equip its people with anti-aircraft missiles smuggled in from Egypt. The stockpiling of a sufficient quantity of precision Soviet-made missiles is meant to deter the IDF from engaging in a massive deployment of forces in the built-up area of the Strip.

This effort is being coordinated by the Hamas leadership in Damascus, which sends terror and explosives experts via Lebanon to advise the members of the military arm in Gaza. The budget for the military reinforcement of the organization was recently doubled. At the same time, the political leadership in Gaza is continuing the process of taking over positions of power and removing the Fatah security services from influential roles.

For now, the friction with Israel is taking place on a relatively small scale. The IDF is to all intents and purposes positioned on Gaza’s “northern border” – the ruins of the Jewish settlements of Dugit and Elei Sinai – from which it sends out forces to find the Qassam launchers. Along the border fence the army uses an aggressive approach, which prevents Palestinians from approaching Israeli territory.

In the southern Strip, troops reached the outskirts of the Philadelphi Route for the first time this week, as part of an attempt to expose underground arms-smuggling tunnels there. As in the battle against the Qassams, this is an effort whose limited results are known in advance. But at the same time, the army is preparing the ground for a bigger move, intended to stop the Palestinians from arming themselves – an extensive ground operation, which will focus on one of the urban areas in the Strip and will require an IDF presence in the area for weeks, if not months.

Although this is not a plan for a permanent occupation, the intention is to carry out concentrated attacks against the terror networks, until the targeted area of the Strip “behaves,” like various places in the West Bank have since the Operation Defensive Shield campaign in 2002. In other words, the IDF will then be able to penetrate deep into Gaza to carry out arrests, without encountering significant opposition.

One of the main questions will be how Egypt will act in such a situation. Judging by the severe warning the Egyptians gave the heads of Hamas this month – after the Palestinian refusal to free captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit – it is not certain that Egypt will strongly object to an aggressive Israeli move.

A war in Gaza is still not a sure thing. To a great extent, what is going on there at present is a battle over legitimacy, which is also reflected in the amount of intelligence-related information transferred to the media regarding the arming of Hamas. The fact that the army’s leadership is becoming convinced of the need for a broad campaign (Halutz did not see things that way before the war in Lebanon) does not mean that the government’s leaders agree. With the public popularity of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at its present low level, it is doubtful that he will be happy to jump head first into a shallow pool with the same enthusiasm as he evidenced on July 12, after the kidnappings in Lebanon. It is also hard to see how the public will cope with a military attack that will involve a limited draft of reservists – and, of course, casualties. At the moment, the Qassams on Sderot are seen more as a nuisance than as a strategic threat to Israel.

What might accelerate a military campaign? As usual in Israel, casualties among soldiers. The IDF concluded operations in the past four months in the Strip with one dead, from friendly fire. But an incident with multiple casualties in Sderot or in an APC on the outskirts of Gaza is liable to lay the groundwork for public opinion to support a broad operation as well.

The south is now looking more and more like the next place for a flare-up – not Lebanon, where Hezbollah is still busy rehabilitating itself after the war, and not the West Bank, where the IDF and the Shin Bet security services are keeping things on a low flame (despite the ongoing danger of penetration by suicide bombers). In Gaza the need for an attack seems more urgent to the IDF, because of the fear that the Palestinians will succeed in creating the balance they are seeking, and that the IDF will become entangled there in a war of attrition, like that encountered by the Americans and the British in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We must not forget that the army will approach the conflict in Gaza after learning two lessons from the war in Lebanon: both the understanding that prolonged restraint is liable to end with a significant operational “success” on the other side (a kidnapping, or the penetration of an Israeli border community, for example), and the desire, which is clear even if not stated, to erase the memory of the failures in the north.

A Hamas-Fatah escalation

Hamas’ preparations for a military confrontation in the Strip are not being aimed only at Israel, but also at the possibility of an escalation in the fighting against Fatah. The operational force established by Hamas in the Strip has become the strongest and best-trained mechanism operat