Tuesday, January 06, 2009

the ground war in gaza

Reports from both sides suggest a hardening of positions as well as a rapidly increasing level of casualties in the fighting. The death of more than 40 civilians in or near a UN-run school constitutes a sort of perverse propaganda victory for Hamas but suggests a level of suffering for the Palestinians that goes well beyond past conflicts. Israeli sources argue that they were returning mortar fire from the area, but confirm that the Army's policy is to lay down heavy fire before sending foot soldiers into an area--apparently a lesson from the Lebanon War--and, generally speaking, to regard anything that moves (especially at night) as a legitimate target. Israeli television also suggested today that, if a cease-fire could not be salvaged on conditions acceptable to Israel, more reserves would be called up and presumably a larger part of the Strip would be occupied.

At this point one should probably speak not of good but of less bad outcomes. Perhaps the least bad of these would be for Israel to have won a clear-cut military victory, surrounding key towns and controlling access to key positions, but without actually entering central Gaza, Khan Yunis, etc. with the attendant casualties and human suffering. Like the 1973 October War, this would leave Israel in a strong position but without so humiliating its adversary as to make future peace (or even cease-fire) talks impossible. The danger is that, the longer the fighting goes on, anything less than a complete reoccupation become unacceptable, leaving both sides with little incentive to back down and taking things back essentially where they were a few years ago.

There has been much criticism of Israel for its increasingly hard policy and seeming ambivalence regarding civilian losses. The reality is that fighting an enemy which has announced its intention to destroy you--even to destroy itself if necessary to accomplish this--does not bring out the best in people. It is sad to say, but I wonder if the terrorists have not succeeded in taking everyone down to their level, and if we are not seeing in Gaza a smaller version of the rather horrific future that awaits if wars against extremist nations--Iran, Pakistan, whatever--become the wave of the future. I am reminded of John Dower's book about the Pacific War, "War Without Mercy," which describes the difficulty Americans had in perceiving the Japanese as human after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don't think anyone needs to be reminded how that war ended.


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