As we near the end of the 18th day of fighting in the Gaza strip Hamas is seriously damaged but certainly not destroyed. Israel’s intent in this offensive was to go into Gaza and destroy Hamas’ capability to launch rockets into southern Israel. While the Isreal Defense Forces (IDF) have made progress in that area — the daily count of rockets landing in communities in southern Isreal has dropped from 70 to 80 per day down to 20 to 30 today alone (Slackman, Michael and Steven Erlanger, “Israel Says Hamas is Damaged, Not Destroyed“, The New York Times, January 13, 2009)(a still non-trivial number) — they are still far from the goal of knocking Hamas completely out of the picture. One question that must be addressed however is “What happens afterwards?” This is the same question that the U.S. military and government had to face after toppling the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein.

Israel has clearly stated they do not wish reoccupy Gaza. By all accounts it would be a case of “been there, done that.” The question remains how can Israel achieve its goal of destroying Hamas’ ability to launch rockets (and more than likely destroy Hamas as a military organization) and extricate itself from the morass which is Gaza? Clearly an immediate withdrawl by Isreali troops before Hamas has been sufficiently destroyed would result in the eventual reconstitution of the terrorist organization and its rearming for another fight. Perhaps the solution would be to hand over the territory to the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas. Unfortunately the PA has already shown itself unable to control Gaza — even in a “unity” government with Hamas. Israel may well find itself in a serious quandry when they achieve their goal. They want to leave — but they may not be able to leave as it would result in a power vacuum that could allow other terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad or a resurgent Hamas or perhaps an offshoot of Hezbollah to gain control.

Israel needs to have a solid exit strategy if it wants Operation Cast Lead to result in real and substantive changes on the ground in Gaza. Otherwise it may find itself trapped once more with the Gaza albatross around its neck.