by Deng Yushan
JERUSALEM, Jan. 4 (Xinhua) -- As Israeli ground troops fight their way in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, various signs indicate that the government and army have to accomplish a substantial achievement in what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called an "unavoidable" incursion.
Under the cover of artillery and aerial fire, Israeli tanks rumbled into the coastal area on Saturday night with infantry troops, combat engineers and intelligence units, escalating the so-called Operation Cast Lead to its second phase in Israel's blistering efforts to end the continuing rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave.
The ground maneuver followed seven days of airstrikes in the first phase, during which over 400 were killed and more than 2,000others wounded in Gaza, and scores of buildings, compounds and other facilities that the Israeli army believed belonged to Hamas were reduced to rubble.
Yet despite the devastating airborne assaults, which Israeli officials said have inflicted unprecedented loss upon the Islamic movement, Gazan militants continued firing rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel, causing four deaths in the past week, and the increased range has put about a tenth of Israel's population under threat.
Israeli leaders stressed at the outset that they were determined to end the rocket fire from Gaza once and away this time and restore security and quiet to the southern land. As days of air raids failed to achieve the clearly defined basic goal, and the air force ran out of valuable targets, a ground op marked a logic follow-up, said Dr. Emily Landau, a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.
The objective of the second phase "is to intensify the heavy blow already dealt to Hamas and to take control of area from where most of the rocket attacks against Israel originate, in order to reduce those rocket attacks," said Brigadier-General Avi Benayahu, spokesman of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
It was "launched to support our central goals, which are to deal a heavy blow to the Hamas terror organization, to strengthen Israel's deterrence, and to create a better security situation for those living around the Gaza Strip that will be maintained for the long term," added Benayahu.
Olmert also said the invasion was an "unavoidable" step. He told the cabinet on Sunday that "there was no alternative to a ground action in the Gaza Strip in order to try and reach the goals of the operation."
In recent years, the Jewish state conducted several military operations in the Palestinian enclave with an aim to end the rocket attacks, but all eventually failed. In addition, the 2006 conflict with the Lebanese group Hezbollah has seldom been mentioned but as a shame.
Yet this time, said analysts, in light of what the officials are saying and what the troops are doing, Israel has no other option but to cast a big dreidel from solid lead in Operation CastLead, which was launched during the Hanukkah festival and is code-named after a Hanukkah song mentioning a lead dreidel, a traditional Hanukkah toy.
Noting that during the past eight years, southern Israelis have been living under the shadow of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, Professor Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and an expert in Arab-Israeli conflict at Bar-Ilan University, said that this misery, together with the mounting calls from local residents to completely cease the misery, has piled up a stronger motivation behind and thus a higher expectation for the ongoing offensive.
Meanwhile, given that Israeli leaders have repeatedly highlighted their determination, and made clear to the public, among other things, that casualties might be heavy, Landau said that these remarks revealed that the current military operation might continue indeed until the publicly stated goals are realized, as the government and army has said.
While the IDF did not disclose the exact number of the ground troops involved, local media put that figure at somewhere around three brigades. Landau added that the scale of the aggression, which is larger than those of the previous ones, also manifested the strong resolve.
Also notable is that the operation is unfolding against the backdrop of the general election, which is just five weeks away. Although political leaders have reiterated that they did not bring campaign politics into the situation room, analysts said that the massive offensive would cast a major influence upon the electorate.
Recent polls showed that the Labor Party, headed by Barak, has so far turned out to be the biggest beneficiary of the operation, and that the current ruling party Kadima, chaired by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, also enjoyed a better prospect. Yet should the operation end with nothing meaningful, it would be anything but impossible that the parties of the current leaders would face a much dimmer future in the Feb. 10 election.
As the offensive extends, what the "big dreidel" would be remains vague. Although most officials said that Israel does not intend to reoccupy Gaza, Livni and some other officials have hinted that Hamas must be toppled in order to returning southern Israel to a peaceful life, while Olmert and Barak have refrained from such statements.
President Shimon Peres, a mainly ceremonial leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said on Sunday in an interview that his nation intends neither to occupy Gaza nor to crush Hamas, but to crush terror.
"The goal is not to chase after and destroy every last rocket launcher, but rather to break the Hamas' resistance and force it to agree to a long-term ceasefire whose terms are more reasonable from Israel's perspective," wrote senior correspondents Amos Hareland Avi Issacharoff at local daily Ha'aretz.
Inbar agreed to this interpretation, and explained that Hamas enjoys considerable popularity and support among Gaza civilians and has tens of thousands militants under its flag, and thus it is not possible to eradicate the group at this stage.
Amid calls from the international community for an immediate end to the bloodshed, efforts are already underway toward a ceasefire, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy due to visit Israel and Egypt on Monday.
While saying that the international community might help work out a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Landau said that international pressure should also be directed at stopping Hamas from attacking Israel, which determines how long the Israeli offensive will last.