JERUSALEM – For almost two weeks, Israel practically bristled with confidence and pride: The Iron Dome air-defense system was dependably zapping incoming Hamas rockets from the skies, the military was successfully repelling infiltration attempts on the ground and from the sea, and the conflict with Hamas was causing almost no casualties in Israel.
That has changed in what seems like a flash, after at least 25 soldiers were killed and scores injured – a predictable yet still stunning outcome of the fateful decision, announced Thursday, to send troops and tanks by land into Hamas-ruled Gaza.
In a country where military service is mandatory for most citizens, and military losses are considered every bit as tragic as civilian ones, the reaction to the setbacks was electric. Newspapers and broadcasts have been dominated by images and tales of the fallen – mostly young faces barely out of high school – and interviews with parents concerned for offspring so clearly now imperiled.
Angst over the highest military toll since the 2006 Lebanon war now mixes with a cocktail of emotions: on one hand, a strong current of determination to press on with efforts to end the rocket fire from Gaza; on the other, the sinking feeling that a quagmire is at hand.
It’s ugly, and it’s no walk in the park, said Alon Geller, a 42-year-old legal intern from central Israel. But we have to finish the operation. If we stop now before reaching our goals, the soldiers will have died in vain.
But the Haaretz newspaper warned against mission creep and the wholesale killing of Palestinian civilians. The soft Gaza sand could turn into quicksand, it said in its editorial Monday. There can be no victory here. Israel must limit its time in the Strip.
There was always near-consensus among Israelis for the airstrikes aimed at ending the rocket fire, which they considered unreasonable and outrageous. The Palestinian deaths caused by the airstrikes – more than 500 in two weeks, many of them civilians – are generally blamed on Hamas, for locating launchers in civilian areas and for proving to be cynical and nihilistic, to Israeli eyes, at every turn.
But a ground invasion of Gaza is another story, and the government had clearly hesitated to take the risk.
House-to-house fighting, tanks exposed in fields, the danger of a soldier being kidnapped, to be traded for thousands after years in captivity: It is an untidy and dispiriting affair.
The government felt it necessary to take such a risky step because despite all the damage being inflicted on Gaza by the airstrikes, the Hamas rocket fire simply did not stop.
Israeli officials also felt world opinion would understand after Hamas rejected a cease-fire proposal that Israel had accepted.
Despite the absence of panic Monday, it is clear that if soldiers continue to be killed at this rate, the flexibility enjoyed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to date will likely be replaced by a growing sense of urgency to stop the casualties. Many Israeli leftists will demand an end to the operation. Hard-liners will demand more radical action, up to and including a takeover of Gaza. That will add to the already mounting pressure from an outside world horrified by the carnage on the Palestinian side.