When Israel raised the heat on Gaza before, civilian casualties soared


An Israeli missile hits Palestinian buildings in Gaza City on July 17, 2014. Israel launched a ground operation in Gaza late Thursday on the 10th day of an offensive to stamp out rocket attacks from the Palestinian enclave, the army said. (THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

The Israel Defense Forces launched a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip on Thursday night, a "new phase" in their ten-day operation against Hamas in Gaza that is guaranteed to escalate hostilities. Israeli officials said the first target of the offensive would be tunnels that allow militants, including fighters loyal to Islamist group Hamas, to infiltrate and launch attacks into Israeli territory. "Hamas terrorists are operating underground and that is where the IDF will meet them," read a statement on the IDF's blog.

Reports indicate the electricity in large parts of Gaza had been cut off; residents in the blockaded enclave braced for a renewed assault from air, land and sea. A Hamas spokesman boasted that the group was "ready for this confrontation" and "the occupation forces will pay a high price."

But if history is any measure, it's not the Israelis but the Palestinians who will suffer most. Israel's past offensives against the group, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, have led to considerable loss of civilian life with few lasting strategic gains against Hamas, which while cornered, is deeply entrenched in Gaza, an impoverished territory of 1.7 million people crammed into a space just twice the size of Washington D.C. The Palestinians living there, as discussed here, exist in dire conditions for which Hamas is only partly to be blame. The memory of previous Israeli sieges is very much alive.

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The eight-day Israeli operation in Gaza in November 2012, dubbed "Pillar of Defense," saw the mobilization of some 75,000 Israeli reservists -- the biggest of its kind since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. A full ground invasion never came to pass, but under its looming threat, Israel pounded suspected Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip, leading to at least 158 Palestinian fatalities, according to U.N. figures. Eli Yishai, Israel's Interior Minister at the time, said "the goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Only then will Israel be calm for 40 years."

The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem found that four-times as many Palestinian civilians died in the offensive's last four days as they did in its first four, a sign that Israel's escalation of hostilities wasn't as surgical as the IDF repeatedly claims it is. Hamas and Israel declared separate cease-fires; during the eight-days of the operation, Hamas fired over 1,500 rockets into Israel, killing five Israeli civilians. Despite the offensive, Israel has not had four years of "calm" since, let alone 40.

Operation Cast Lead, a 22-day offensive that began in the last week of 2008, was even more devastating for the Palestinians. Israel responded to a rise in Hamas rocket attacks with a week of intense aerial bombardment that was followed by two weeks of a combined air and ground campaign, with Israeli troops entering the territory from the north and the east. Casualty figures are disputed, but an estimated 1,400 Palestinians died, including some 300 minors under the age of 18. Thirteen Israelis died in the near-month-long war, including three civilians and four IDF soldiers killed by friendly fire.

Subsequent investigations into Operation Cast Lead raised the specter of war crimes by Israel. The bombing campaign exacted almost $2 billion in damage in Gaza; some 23 U.N. facilities in the territory were in some way hit by Israeli strikes. Israel hailed the operation as a military success and pointed to the "innovative" humanitarian methods it used to spare civilian life, including the dropping of millions of leaflets and the tactic of "roof-knocking"--the firing of a small, warning bomb before dropping a full payload.

Hamas, though, rearmed and those Israeli measures have resurfaced once more in the current offensive, a sign of the grinding, almost cyclical nature of the conflict. Both sides are far apart on negotiating a cease-fire: Hamas was barely consulted on the terms of an earlier truce proposed by Egypt and its own mooted conditions are unlikely to be met by an Israel that is no mood for compromise.

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, sums up the present situation: "Right now we have a big game of Middle East chicken: Israel will not start negotiating with Hamas and make the terrorist group a winner any more than Hamas will capitulate without a fundamental improvement in economic life for Gaza."

And as Israel's soldiers and tanks move in, the prospect of a rising death toll increases.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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