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The deaths of 13 soldiers in the Gaza Strip struck Israel like a bolt of lightning on a clear day. Even without a scientific test, it is possible to see the marked difference between the Israeli response to the murder of civilians compared to the killing of soldiers. When soldiers are killed the thresholds shift - when civilians are murdered there is a lot less excitement. Just look - the murder of Tali Hatual and her four daughters in Gush Katif did not precipitate a war in Rafah, but the killing of soldiers in their APCs did.

Our hasty withdrawal from Lebanon was a direct result of fatalities in uniform. Around 20 soldiers were being killed annually, a rate the public could not tolerate and didn't want to. When 20 civilians are killed on a bus, the world goes on its way. Four mothers do not stand up to protest, and the country seems to have become accustomed to a crazy but steady quota of murdered. It's just that civilians without uniforms seem of lesser value.

It is worth noting that Palestinians are regularly referred to as terrorists when they kill civilians, but also when they kill soldiers, although by definition soldiers are not murdered unless they are victims of an attack on a bus or a restaurant, and it is not "terrorists" who kill them.

One can even argue that representing soldiers who die in combat as victims of terror is an affront to their memory. Soldiers fall as fighters on the battlefield they are sent to by the government and their commanders to achieve a certain goal, appropriate or otherwise.

Our response, of course, should be the opposite - civilians innocently traveling on a bus are helpless and the state, with its security forces, is supposed to protect them.

When the head of the Shin Bet security services said at the last Herzliya Conference that the state has not succeeded in providing Israelis with the protective gear they deserve, he was referring to civilians, not to soldiers who go armed to battle in a calculated risk.

Great anguish gripped us all during the past two weeks at the sight of 13 coffins draped in the state flag. The death of soldiers is more painful to us and vexes us more, because they were young, because they are our beloved sons, because every one of us has, or will have, someone there, because we raise them here for a divinely sanctioned war.

But perhaps there are deeper reasons that our mourning over soldiers is heavier than our mourning of civilians. Soldiers are not only soldiers in our eyes but are symbols of the state, and when a soldier is hurt the symbol is also hurt. Here soldiers are not just private people, like those blown up on a bus, each one to himself. Soldiers are also the collective that sheds blood from the national reservoir.

There is not only solidarity here, but also alarm - when soldiers are killed, it's as if our protective gear has come undone and we are all more exposed, and there is no choice but to immediately rehabilitate the IDF "deterrent capability."

And if soldiers are being killed, then maybe there is something the matter with the army, and soon there will be no one to protect us. The innocent old man and the student murdered on the bus, they will not be there for us in our hour of need, so they will be buried in dull and dusty funerals, without flags or ceremonies. It is no coincidence that many families insist on a military ceremony at their sons' funerals, even if it can only be justified with difficulty.

Perhaps this difference in response also indicates more than slight pangs of conscience. The soldiers who were killed - it is we who send them, although we promised them a thousand times that we would not lead them to a sacrificial altar, and yet the sacrificing has not stopped.

The differences in the Israeli response also attest to the stupidity and maliciousness of the Palestinians. Some say they know Israeli society much better than we know theirs. If they really did, they would know already what hurts us most.

And then those war criminals, headed by Yasser Arafat, would rid themselves and us of their appalling terror, they would not be forcing themselves into the world of international pariahs, and would not be marking their war of independence with the indelible stain of terrorism against civilians. If they really knew us, and had a little more wisdom, the Palestinians would behave in war as in war - not as in a slaughterhouse.