The rationale for Israel’s war with Hamas has a shelf life. The higher the death toll of innocent civilians rises, the less Israel’s friends will be able to claim that the ends justify the means. The Israeli leadership knows this and is daily calculating how far and in what way to proceed.
The central aim is to staunch the flow of rockets fired from inside the Gaza Strip by militants of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Discovery of tunnels dug under the Gaza perimeter fence into Israel has added the further objective of destroying these too. The tunnels indicate an intention to infiltrate Israel to kill or kidnap its soldiers and citizens. As for the rockets, these may be no match for Israeli artillery but the very fact that they are too crude to target precisely makes them all the more terrifying in their unpredictability.
The militants are also intent upon disrupting daily life in Israel by forcing the population into shelters at a moment’s notice, bringing normal business to a halt. The fact that Hamas warned international airlines that their planes would be targets when flying into or out of Israel’s main Tel Aviv airport also speaks of a deliberate strategy on their part to cost Israel dear in terms of its international trade and reputation for security.
Yet Israelis know that the costs to them of effectively eliminating all the rockets and launchers stockpiled in Gaza since the last round of conflict in 2009, if not before, will be high. The only way to find each cache of arms in Gaza requires troops to go in on the ground. The same applies to find and destroy the tunnels. And in the rabbit-warren streets of Gaza’s crowded refugee camps and towns Israeli soldiers make easier targets for classic urban guerrilla warfare.
In many respects the Gaza strip, a slither of land covering 365sq km along the Mediterranean seaboard, and wedged between Israel and the border with Egypt, makes it an easy target for bombardment by air, land and sea. However, to bomb the densely populated area indiscriminately would be too drastic a measure to contemplate – a war crime and humanitarian disaster that would bring Israel pariah status abroad and a level of revulsion at home.