JERUSALEM—The Gaza Strip's warriors have been firing rockets at Israeli border towns for nearly eight years and while Israel has tended all along to strike back with much greater lethal force, never has it launched such a ferocious reprisal as its current Operation Solid Lead.
The aerial raids aimed at Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets are being called the most potent Israeli assault in Palestinian-populated territory since the 1967 Six Day War.
Why now? Two reasons: the expiration of the Israeli-Gazan cease-fire on December 19 and the Israeli national election coming up on February 10.
The six-month cease-fire started coming apart at the beginning of November after Israeli commandos killed a team of Hamas fighters during a raid on a tunnel they suspected was being dug for the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. That raid set off more Palestinian rocketing, which prompted further Israeli attacks. All this prompted Hamas to declare that it wouldn't extend the cease-fire unless Israel lifted its punishing siege of the Gaza Strip, which was imposed after the militant group Hamas was elected to power nearly three years ago.
But Israel, unwilling to grant Hamas any concessions, kept the siege on, so the rocketing increased, and in turn, Israel killed more Gazan fighters, feeding the violent cycle. The Hamas rockets rarely hit anybody, but did terrorize many Israelis and enrage the whole country.
So, finally, just before noon on Saturday, Israeli fighter jets flew over Gaza and began dropping their bombs. By midweek, they'd killed more than 370 Gazans, a large majority of them Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives, while Hamas unleashed its arsenal of more powerful, longer-range rockets, killing three Israeli civilians and one soldier.
The eight years of fighting have been a grinding war of attrition, but the Israeli public wants an end to it, and with an election campaign in process, the country's leaders are under that much more pressure to give the public what it wants.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert isn't up for re-election, having resigned under the weight of several corruption investigations, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni are each running for prime minister, and polls show them playing catch-up with hawkish opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who has called for a war to "restore our national honor." In such a national mood, playing tit-for-tat with Hamas won't suffice anymore; even Meretz, the party of the Israeli peace movement, gave a qualified endorsement of Operation Solid Lead.
The goal of the current assault, says the government, is to bring about a long-term halt to the rocketing of Sderot, Ashkelon, and other Israeli towns and cities near Gaza. The problem is that it's not at all clear how that can be achieved or how many innocent Israeli and Palestinian lives might be lost in the attempt.
Many Israeli leaders, including Livni and Netanyahu, have called for the Hamas regime to be toppled, yet there doesn't seem to be any alternative leadership available in Gaza, certainly none that might be more inclined to peace.
And while Israel can kill lots of terrorists and destroy lots of weaponry, there's always more where they came from. The only way Israel can unilaterally impose a long-term cessation of the rocketing is by massively, indefinitely reoccupying Gaza, home to 1.5 million desperate, hostile Palestinians. Israel tried that route for 38 years before pulling its soldiers and settlers out of Gaza in 2005. Few Israelis are ready for a reprise.
Yet an emergency call-up has been issued for some 6,500 reserve soldiers and Israeli tanks have been moved into position along Gaza's border. Israeli leaders have repeatedly warned the public that this war won't be over quickly. Operation Solid Lead started with a bang, but there's no telling when or how it might end.