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The incident on Wednesday in Rafah, in which an Israeli tank killed eight Palestinian civilians with its shells, including children and innocent demonstrators, is another reminder that the Gaza Strip is a quagmire. The strategic directive that mustn't be forgotten is: Make sure not to get mired in Gaza. Of course, we have to be even more careful when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declare publicly that, in any case, Israel will not remain in the Gaza Strip.

The operational needs in the Gaza Strip are deceptively tempting. There will always be a reason found to penetrate further into Gaza to achieve a more important operational target. And suddenly we find ourselves in the quagmire. These are not huge areas, desert steppes or deep snow. The quagmire in the Strip are the 1,400,000 Palestinians who are spread out in refugee camps in terribly crowded conditions. This number will increase quickly in view of the young population. In about a decade, say the demographers, the population will reach about three million. Palestinian leaders say that when they take over, there will be no way to avoid transferring population to the West Bank.

There is very little chance of finding an ordinary solution to the problem of the Gaza Strip. Israel must distance itself from the quagmire at any price, and at least release the only reserves of land, which are in Israeli hands.

Israel must also help from the outside, because poverty and despair are a hothouse for terrorism. Were the Palestinians to declare a unilateral cease-fire in the Gaza Strip already now, Israel would be dragged into it, and a different process would begin.

Israel occupied the Gaza Strip twice in the past, and then withdrew. Once in 1956 and once in 1967. During the term of the previous government (when Labor was part of the coalition), the prime minister often urged taking control of the Gaza Strip, including Gaza City. Sharon was then supported by the chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, and only the opposition of Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) prevented it.

Now Israel is inside once again. Events have pulled it into the swamp. Even after the unfortunate incident with the demonstrators, the Israel Defense Forces did not give in, and with the approval of the political echelon, it carried on with the operation, and another force burst into another neighborhood in Rafah.

The condemnations of the world are received with indifference, and the indifference is reinforced by the fact that similar, and worse, blunders are happening to the Americans in Iraq. There is also an intention to prove to the Palestinians that Israel will not be deterred from completing its military goals against the instigators of terrorism.

The operation has not yet ended, and the summary is only partial. It must take into account the goals determined at the outset. One goal was to seize large caches of weapons in Rafah, which the Palestinians have managed to smuggle via new tunnels beneath the Philadelphi route. By yesterday that hadn't happened yet. Another goal was to seize the contractors, the experts and the engineers who dig the tunnels. Their names are known. By yesterday most of them had succeeded in escaping, and only one big fish was reeled in. These are meager achievements.

There is another major target, which hasn't been discussed in public, but which hovers above all. It developed after three serious incidents: first the murder of Tali Hatuel and her four daughters, at point-blank range. This was followed by the explosions of the two APCs. There was great rejoicing in the Gaza Strip, and arms warehouses were opened to continue the attacks. The IDF said that we must restore Israel's deterrence capability, because if not, the deterioration will continue. Has this goal been accomplished? It's difficult to measure, but we can assume that the answer is positive to a great extent. But along with increased deterrence, there is also an increase in hatred and in the desire to take revenge, and in the world's unbridled criticism.