Just days before the Knesset elections, the decision on whether to continue the confrontation in the south lies in the hands of Hamas. If the organization accepts the Egyptian cease-fire initiative, this will likely restore calm to the region along the border with the Gaza Strip, at least for a few months; a negative reply will set Israel back on the road of assassinating Hamas leaders, eventually leading to a new round of hostilities.

Despite the clear outcome of last month's military confrontation - the Israel Defense Forces entered in full force, and Hamas retreated and sustained heavy losses whenever its activists chose to fight - the difficulty of translating the military advantage into a political achievement is becoming increasingly clear. Hamas has succeeded in upholding its narrative, according to which the organization acquitted itself honorably in the face of the massive IDF steamroller.

The agreement proposed by Egypt, which dictates tough concessions to be made by Hamas, also constitutes de facto recognition of the group's status. Until Israel receives Cairo's reply, the alliance between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is proving to be (as before and during the operation) the central axis of decision-making in Israel. When the two reached the conclusion, late in the day, that a large-scale operation was needed, the war was launched. When they thought the time had come to stop it, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acceded.

The "kitchen cabinet" decided a week ago to allow the IDF to mount a powerful attack, but as of midday yesterday, such an attack had not been launched. The official excuse was the lack of an "operational opportunity." In other words, the top Hamas officials are in hiding and the IDF cannot get at them. But in the backdrop was Barak's belief that it is best to let the prospect for an agreement play itself out before re-escalating the conflict. There is logic to this view, but it also has a clear shortcoming: Israel's restraint in the face of ongoing rocket fire is gradually eroding what remains of the operation's achievements.

Collective punishment

In January 2006, immediately after Hamas' victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, Israel closed the crossings through which goods are brought into Gaza. The goal was to prevent Hamas from enabling the population to lead a normal life. That act constituted collective punishment for 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel's assumption was that economic distress would bring down the Hamas regime. After the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, in June 2006, the Rafah crossing was also closed, following Israeli pressure on Egypt. Israel conditioned the lifting of the siege on Shalit's return and allowed only humanitarian provisions into Gaza.

When the tahadiyeh (cease-fire) agreement was approved last June, a new stipulation emerged: the opening of the crossings in return for a full cease-fire. When rockets were fired, Israel closed the crossings; at the same time, Hamas rejected Israel's attempt to continue to tie Shalit's fate to their opening. Israel continued to prohibit the import of iron and construction materials, which could be used to manufacture rockets or build fortifications. But among the banned products were also some which the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories described as "luxuries," such as Coca-Cola and cigarettes. Hamas felt it had been cheated. The promise it received from Egypt - that the crossings would be fully opened - was not met. That was a key reason for the organization's decision to end the cease-fire in December by firing rockets, which led to the IDF incursion into Gaza.

Discussions about a new cease-fire agreement are also reverting to the question of goods. Israel apparently wants to preserve the ban on iron and construction materials, with certain limitations on "luxuries." The impression is that Israel has not yet fully abandoned the belief that exerting economic pressure on the population will induce it to shake off Hamas. So far, this approach has achieved the exact opposite effect. The conclusion reached by Gazans is that Israel is trying to undermine Palestinian democracy, while Hamas is merely demanding what it was promised. At the moment, it seems more likely that the closure of the crossings is actually strengthening Hamas, not weakening it.

Ethics and 'zero risk'

A sign posted by the master sergeant of the Golani Brigade's reconnaissance unit in its temporary base near Gaza bears a wise message: "Today's compromise is tomorrow's norm." That approach is implemented by the IDF in all spheres but one: the killing of Palestinian civilians and the destruction of homes during Operation Cast Lead.

Israel did not perpetrate systematic war crimes in the Gaza Strip. Even if all Palestinian descriptions of events are reliable (which they are not), it appears that the IDF is less brutal than other armies that encounter similar problems. The real question, which is not being considered in depth, is different: Are we not witnessing an ongoing erosion in combat ethics that were once self-evident, in the face of a terrorist enemy who is becoming more sophisticated and more wicked from one round of warfare to the next? How did it come about that what was considered absolutely prohibited a decade ago is now permissible and justified?

The IDF prefers to hide behind the rather small figure of Col. Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, head of the international law unit in the military advocate general's office. She became the target of a campaign against allowing her to teach at Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Law. The reactions of the past week clearly indicate the people are with Sharvit-Baruch. However, it is possible to agree that she was wronged, but still ask: Why does the chief of staff, who formulated the policy for implementing force, not explain his reasoning to the media?

In fact, the details of two serious incidents that were reported this week - the shelling next to a school run by UNRWA (the United Nations relief agency) and the killing of three daughters and a niece of physician Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish - heighten the need for an in-depth investigation of the killing of civilians. The results of the two investigations show that almost nothing reported in the immediate aftermath was correct. In the first case, the mortar shells did not hit the school itself (contrary to the allegations of some UN personnel), but the rockets to which the IDF was responding were not fired from the school compound (contrary to the initial Israeli account). In the case of Dr. Abu al-Aish, the IDF now admits there was no sniper fire from his home and has dissociated itself from leaks to the press stating that the girls were hit by a Hamas Katyusha.

It is possible, as the chief of staff believed, that there was no way to avoid unleashing massive firepower in the Gaza Strip; that if ground forces had entered with less firepower, 100 soldiers would have been killed, causing public panic and a quick retreat, prompting a severe domestic crisis. Was there an alternative? And if so, was it given serious consideration?

It was instructive to watch the TV interviews with the commander of the Paratroops Brigade, Col. Herzi Halevi. This brilliant officer, who also excelled in combat, categorically refuses to open the Pandora's box of moral debate. The message of the operation's justified character and its mode of execution was sometimes sweepingly translated at the lower levels into an atmosphere of zero tolerance to questions, which was projected to the soldiers before the operation and is now a cause of their frustration.

The head of the general philosophy department at Bar-Ilan University, Prof. Noam Zohar, who lectures on ethics in courses for the IDF, believes that giving priority to the lives of soldiers over the lives of civilians on the enemy side, by means of a "zero risk" approach for soldiers, "is not consistent with the document about the spirit of the IDF, which asserts that a soldier shall do all he can to avoid harm to noncombatants. It is impossible to conduct a war with a 'zero risk' approach. That is an outrageous, unacceptable norm. There is reason for concern that problematic actions were carried out on the ground, based on the spirit that was projected to the forces in the briefings."

This is certainly an argument that merits a discussion, because the IDF must now look ahead with worry to future campaigns.