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The government launched a military campaign in Gaza yesterday. In the first wave of aerial assaults, more than 200 Palestinians were killed and Hamas' retaliatory fire killed one Israeli civilian from Netivot. Hundreds were wounded on the Palestinian side, as were dozens of Israelis. "This is the time for battle," the defense minister said in highlighting the new reality that has taken hold in recent weeks in Sderot, Ashkelon, and the western Negev.

It is possible to understand the logic of the Israel Defense Forces response. It did not need the inflammatory rhetoric of the news media, which often acted like cheerleaders competing with one another. Nor did it need the winds of the election, which propels the sails of headline-hungry politicians. The residents of the western Negev, who have lived in fear on a daily basis, petrified elementary school children, and the constant violation of a soverign state's territory - these are what provide legitimacy for the operation.

But understanding is no substitute for wisdom, and the inherent desire for retribution does not necessarily have to blind us to the view from the day after. The expression "time for combat" still does not elucidate the goals of the assault. Does Israel seek to "just" send Hamas a violent, horrifying message? Is the intention to destroy the organization's military and civilian infrastructure? Perhaps the goal is far-reaching to the point of removing Hamas from power in Gaza and transferring rule to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas? How does Israel intend to realize these goals? The aerial assault on its own, as one may recall from the Lebanon War, cannot suffice. Does the IDF plan on deploying thousands of soldiers in the streets of Gaza? And what will the number of casualties be at this stage?

A public that has learned from experience cannot assume once again that the government knows what it is doing, particularly since its leaders have struggled in formulating a consistent stance in recent weeks. That same public knows well, and not only from the Lebanon experience, that working toward long-term goals that would completely change the landscape in the region, like toppling Hamas from power in Gaza, is liable to turn out to be a wild fantasy. It would be best to make do with immediate goals and with measured, calculated accomplishments that could restore quiet, particularly the cease-fire Israel enjoyed for five months, which enabled Gaza residents to lead reasonable lives.

Israel's violation of the lull in November expedited the deterioration that gave birth to the war of yesterday. But even if this continues for many days and even weeks, it will end in an agreement, or at least an understanding similar to that reached last June. Hamas' terms for calm have not changed: a cessation of the attacks on Gaza and the organization's activities in the West Bank, a reopening of the Gaza border crossings, and a release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel's demands will also remain as they were: a halt to rocket attacks on its towns. It would behoove both sides to enlist every possible mediator - from Egypt to Qatar to the United States and Europe - to implement those terms. One may assume that the military message Israel sent was fully understood. It would be best not to turn it into a disaster that would preclude a future agreement.