With Hamas’s rocket fire on Israel intensifying two weeks ago, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, with Iran’s nuclear program the main thing on his plate, kept ordering only small-scale retaliatory strikes from the air, hoping to avoid a larger conflict. But Hamas kept firing—more and more. So Israel launched Operation Protective Edge—but still tried to keep it limited, without boots on the ground in Gaza.
On Wednesday morning Netanyahu made an adroit move, publicly accepting an Egyptian ceasefire proposal. Hamas turned it down flat. Netanyahu, who told the Israeli public in a televised address on Sunday evening that he has been in constant contact with the leaders of the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, France, and other countries, undoubtedly drove that point home to them.
With Israel’s diplomatic position strengthened, and with Arab media growing harshly critical of Hamas, Hamas responded by…escalating the war. On Thursday at dawn the Israeli army spotted and repelled a group of 13 Hamas terrorists who had infiltrated into Israel through a tunnel from Gaza, on their way to perpetrate a massacre at nearby Kibbutz Sufa. The near-catastrophe was a pivotal moment that put an end to Israel’s boots-on-the-ground debate.
On Thursday night Israeli infantry, tank, and engineering units entered Gaza. The stated goal was to find the tunnels along the border—in which Hamas has invested vast sums and years of work—and destroy them, removing an intolerable danger of murderous attacks and kidnappings from residents of southern Israel.
In his speech Sunday evening Netanyahu spoke of somewhat broader aims—“an extended period of calm and security” and “inflicting serious damage” on Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza. While the IDF has indeed been finding and destroying tunnels, Sunday also found it locked in heavy fighting in the Shejaia neighborhood of Gaza City, a Hamas stronghold.
Which brings one to the issue of casualties.
People who complain of “asymmetry” and “disproportion”—meaning that something has to be wrong because Israelis aren’t dying—could feel somewhat better on Sunday evening, as the IDF officially announced that the total of soldiers killed since Israel invaded Gaza on Thursday night now stood at 18, 13 of them in the previous 24 hours. As for the Palestinian side, the death toll since the war started reportedly came to over 400, including 65 in the fighting in Shejaia on Sunday.
On the Israeli side, sensitivity to casualties is particularly high, and Netanyahu devoted a good part of his speech to the issue on Sunday evening. But with most of Israel under constant rocket fire for almost two weeks, and ongoing infiltration attempts from Gaza, Israelis will tolerate the casualties because they know the alternative is an Israel that is no longer viable.
Palestinian casualties are, of course, a different matter—the cause célèbre not only of Israel-bashers but also of Western governments that typically start pressuring Israel for a ceasefire as soon as it starts seriously fighting Palestinian terror.
The reasons for the “asymmetry” between Israeli and Palestinian casualties should be clear by now to anyone who is informed and has a conscience. Israel invests vast sums to protect its citizens, particularly with the Iron Dome missile-defense system; Hamas positions weapons stockpiles and command centers in and under mosques, schools, and hospitals. Israel goes to extraordinary lengths to warn Gazans of impending strikes, and encourages them to leave conflict zones; Hamas orders them to stay where they are.
It gets down to the moral difference between a democratic state with a Jewish ethos and a terror organization with a jihadist ethos. But it’s a distinction to which the world seems particularly resistant.
There were already signs of trouble on Sunday when U.S. secretary of state John Kerry—who has publicly made statements supportive of Israel and critical of Hamas—was caught in an open-mike moment bitterly criticizing Israel for Palestinian casualties and implying that he needed to come to the rescue.
A short time later President Obama chimed in with a call in a similar spirit to Netanyahu—in which he announced that Kerry was on his way.
Hamas is isolated, despised by most of the Arab world, caught in a vise between Israel and the fiercely anti-Hamas regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, inconsequentially supported by Turkey and Qatar, and in serious danger of sustaining a major, lasting blow.
A decisive Israeli win in this war will bolster Israel’s deterrence, discourage its jihadist foe Hizballah to the north, and demonstrate to the region that ideological jihad is a losing proposition and no match for Western military prowess. Obama’s “concern” and Kerry’s impending arrival are, then, very worrying.
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