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With Death Tolls Rising, Israel's Options Start To Close

Quit or double down? The risks for Israel rise in step with the number killed on both sides of the conflict in Gaza.

Israeli soldiers in southern Israel on Monday
Israeli soldiers in southern Israel on Monday
Peter Münch

TEL AVIV — They’re now fighting through the rubble, and there are still no sign of things calming down in Shejaiya. At least 100 Palestinians have already died in that eastern suburb of Gaza since the Israeli army launched its house-to-house assault against Hamas.

Images show corpses lying in the street and hospitals barely have room for any more of the wounded. People are fleeing, or wandering aimlessly around with no idea of where to look for shelter. Gaza has become hell on earth. How are the 1.8 million people who live there supposed to endure this?

On the other side is Israel, the government of which promised the Israeli people two weeks ago that it would put an end to Hamas rocket attacks. Since then the Israelis have attacked Gaza relentlessly, first by air, and now with ground forces. The army reports success upon success, with over 2,500 targets attacked. Yet on Monday there were still Hamas rocket attacks reported in the southern part of the country and air raid sirens were sounding in Tel Aviv.

Israeli newspapers featured long rows of pictures of young men in uniform whose lives ended abruptly in a single day. On Sunday alone, Israel lost 13 soldiers. Since the beginning of the ground offensive, Israeli losses have reached 25. And Hamas has proudly announced the capture of a soldier. How long can the nation stand the mounting toll?

What is clear is that this bloody war in heavily populated areas has reached a new stage. Originally, only the destruction of Hamas’s tunnel system was the announced goal of the ground offensive. Now however Israel’s army in Gaza is in the thick of a military and moral morass.

First doubts in Israel

With 100 dead in one day on the Palestinian side, international pressure on the government in Jerusalem is mounting palpably — gone are the days when Israel could conduct a "war of self-defense with relatively little criticism."

On the other hand, Israeli leaders will have to quickly find a way to give meaning to the loss of the lives of its soldiers. That could mean turning up the heat, at great risk, in a window of time that is slowly closing. At some point, the home front is going to crumble as well.

For the people in Gaza, that will mean continuing to helplessly endure Israeli attacks. Hamas leadership has gone completely underground, and in their attacks on Israeli soldiers, the fighters in the al-Qassam brigades have also begun dressing as civilians. The figure of 600-plus dead threatens to keep rising sharply, as does the number of refugees. The United Nations has referred to more than 150,000 already now that have fled their homes as a result of the fighting. Eighty thousand found shelter in UN facilities and these are now beyond capacity.

With every day of war, the risk to Israelis of falling into one of the many Hamas traps increases. On Monday, an armed commando made it through a tunnel into the vicinity of an Israeli kibbutz. There the heavily armed Palestinians were discovered, filmed for propaganda purposes by the Israeli army, and fired on live. Ten Palestinians were killed. Here too, and despite the loss of life, all Hamas would need is a single successful terror attack to present itself as victorious.

So it’s a fine line that Israel’s leadership is walking as it continues to forge ahead with the war. With growing pathos, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urges the nation to hold firm. "There is not a more just war than the one in which your sons, our sons, heroically fell," he told grieving parents.

Behind the scenes, however, a conflict has flared up about winding the engagement down. Minister of Defense Moshe Jaalon hinted at a possible way out when he noted that most of the Hamas tunnel system could be destroyed in two to three days. Other cabinet colleagues like Minister of Strategic Affairs Juval Steinitz, however, favor a longer engagement with even fiercer attacks on Hamas.

In this messy situation, hope can only come from the outside. The United States is feeling the pressure to get involved, while the UN Security Council is calling for a ceasefire. "Gaza is an open wound," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. "We must stop the bleeding now."

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