Israel has no good choices in its ongoing battle against Hamas rocket barrages from Gaza, because the Islamist terror organization has no interest in negotiating a rational compromise that would end the fighting and allow Israelis and Palestinians to learn to live with each other. Given this reality, Israel's least bad choice as a sovereign nation is to protect its citizens as best it can in the short term by staying on the offensive against Hamas.
Hamas' intentions are crystal clear. Strategically, it's to eradicate Israel over time through asymmetrical warfare. Tactically, it's to keep chipping away at Israel's physical security and morale by controlling the timing and level of violence. This enables Hamas to keep its losses to what it considers a manageable level. That includes just enough civilian losses to maintain the media storyline of Palestinians as innocent victims, but not so many as to undermine its domestic standing.
So far, Hamas has been successful at this game because it can count on the international community - spurred on by Arab and Muslim outrage over a Jewish state in the Middle East, and the West's insecurity over oil and terrorism - to condemn Israel, thus limiting its ability to fully defend itself despite its military edge.
Since Israel withdrew its ill-advised settlements from Gaza in 2005, Hamas has orchestrated the launching of more than 6,000 rockets and mortars toward Israel. Most of the projectiles were Qassam rockets manufactured in Gaza. Relatively crude, they still managed to terrorize the Israeli border town of Sderot, injuring scores and killing a dozen.
As the Qassams kept coming and the international community counseled Israeli restraint, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government repeatedly warned that Hamas was smuggling in longer-range, Katyusha-style rockets, probably from Iran, its patron. Last week, Hamas launched Katyushas - also know as Grad rockets - at Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 about 10 miles north of the Gaza border. Israel responded with fury toward Hamas and Gaza, but with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice due in Israel this week, it abruptly pulled back its forces.
In the summer of 2006, Hezbollah, Iran's proxy militia in Lebanon, launched a cross-border attack that ended with eight Israeli soldiers dead and two captured. Fed up, Israel ceased abiding by Hezbollah's tit-for-tat rules of engagement and responded with massive force. The conflict lasted 33 days, killed more than 1,000 on both sides and devastated much of Lebanon's infrastructure.
Afterward, Hezbollah boasted of victory, a hollow claim swallowed whole by much of the media. However, in August 2006, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah apologized to the Lebanese people for sparking the war that cost Lebanon as much as $15 billion in damage. "Had we known that the capture of the soldiers would have led to this, we would definitely not have done it," he said. Moreover, the U.N. cease-fire agreement pushed Hezbollah away from former positions on Israel's border and inserted the Lebanese army and international forces between the sides.
Israel's internal review of the war, the Winograd Commission report, faulted Israel's military and political leaders for critical operational failings. But it seems clear that a chastised Hezbollah will hesitate before it again launches an unprovoked attack against Israel, now that Jerusalem has made the consequences clear.
The decision to take strong military action is not to be made lightly, even in response to naked aggression by those seeking to destroy you. Yet Hamas keeps prodding Israel to do so, only to cry foul when Israel fights back on its terms rather than abiding by Hamas' game plan.
In warfare, he who controls the pace of battle has the upper hand. For too long, Hamas - a terrorist group sworn to Israel's destruction and the establishment of a Palestinian Muslim state on all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River - has been allowed to control the pace of its war against Israel with the acquiescence of the international community.
Michael B. Oren, author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, wrote recently that Hamas is just one "lucky shot" from precipitating another major Middle East war (although "unlucky" is more like it, since he meant a Hamas rocket hitting a target such as an Israeli school or hospital, killing dozens).
That will happen sooner or later if Hamas is not curtailed. It almost happened last week. Israel has every right to fight back as best it can.
Ira Rifkin is a former Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report and a columnist for the Baltimore Jewish Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.