JERUSALEM — Nobody wanted to believe it. Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet had of course called up reservists and warned the 100,000 inhabitants of Gaza who lived near the border not to stay long.

But for most Israeli political analysts, this had appeared to be mainly an exercise in communications. And everything pointed to their being right in thinking that way.

The Israeli Prime Minister himself showed signs of hesitation and almost of good will towards the Palestinians by accepting Egypt’s successive cease fire offers.

He did deploy his air and naval forces in "Operation Protective Edge" in retaliation for Hamas strikes that had reached as far as the large city of Haifa in the north of Israel. But "Bibi" seemed little inclined to start a ground offensive which would be very risky for soldiers whose death — or worse, abduction — would be traumatic for Israelis.

The experience of Operation Cast Lead, which began in December 2008, still lingers in Israel's memory. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas and hence one of the most dangerous and unpredictable for combatants in a local war.

Without a military objective

Ethan, a reservist who took part in Operation Cast Lead, recalls the events of five-plus years ago: “To avoid risk to human life, in fact what they sent us on was a punitive operation."

He shares his memories in a Jerusalem café.

"An armed operation has by definition an objective that is not only clearly outlined but is also, in the opinion of the general staff, considered to be attainable," the young war veteran explains. "But what is it in Gaza? There isn’t a single mission there that can be accomplished by a ground offensive."

He recalls how his unit was assigned to a small zone several kilometers west of the Karni crossing, on a hill at an altitude of about 300 meters. "When we got there, all the people who lived there had already cleared out," he said.

Contrary to what he’d thought at the beginning, Ethan’s unit was not there to search, confiscate weapons, and make arrests which would have put the soldiers at considerable risk. “What they expected of us was that we raze the zone. The ground trembled the whole time as houses were destroyed one after the other …"

The young father continues: "And there were indeed traps in some of them, hidden explosives that caused second explosions and tunnels that could have swallowed us up."

The idea was to cause as much damage as possible, to make Hamas understand "don’t play this game with us anymore." But the dangerous nature of the operation led to disgrace."

Rafah in January 2009 — Photo: Qi Xiangui/Xinhua/Zuma

The army had been given instructions to return quickly and without losses so the rules of engagement were changed. “Anybody on a roof was a legitimate target, for example. So there was no need to warn them or to have proof that they were armed and represented a threat."

The rule "don’t shoot when in doubt" was applied in the inverse. "There, it was: If there’s any doubt, shoot. It was the cause of a lot of civilian deaths but also losses in our ranks down to friendly fire."

It was just the kind of military quagmire that Netanyahu appeared to want to avoid, until Thursday night.