For many, the word conjures images of crowded neighborhoods caught in perpetual strife - between Hamas and Fatah, between Hamas and Israel. For the myopic European media, Gaza is another example of Israeli heavy-handedness. Israelis, especially those living in the expanding range of Hamas rockets, see Gaza as proof that unilateral concessions compromise Israel's safety while bringing peace no closer.
To me, Gaza is far more personal. As an Israeli infantry officer, I served in Gaza before, during, and after the 2005 Disengagement. While the character and content of the mission changed drastically during my years in the Strip, a striking feature of my service was the time and effort spent trying to find ways to live in peace with the people and rulers of Gaza.
This was no doubt complicated by the presence of Israeli communities in Gaza, since withdrawn. Even so, every morning I secured the entry of 500 Palestinian workers into the Ganei Tal farms, providing them access to good jobs and support for their families. The Israeli farmers insisted on continuing the employment of these workers even as Hamas attempted to destroy any manifestation of coexistence, regularly attacking the Gazans' entry point into the farms. Then, as now, Gazans were given medical treatment in Israel when their needs were beyond the capabilities of local hospitals.
In 2005, the Israeli government under Ariel Sharon decided to forcibly evacuate Israeli families from their homes in Gaza. At great cost, and at the risk of damaging the fabric of Israeli society and the cohesion of its armed forces, the IDF spent months training for and performing the removal of Israeli citizens from their homes. As a participant in the painful episode, I have vivid memories of the anger and confusion caused by this drastic step taken in the hope that Israel's sacrifice would lead to something better for all peoples of the region. Israeli farmers left valuable greenhouses intact for Palestinians to begin building a vibrant economy on the ruins of the Jewish communities, but Hamas tore them down the night Israel left.
After we evacuated every last inch of Gaza, Hamas refused to let Israel's gesture open a window for peace. Immediately, Hamas began smuggling anti-tank missiles, mines, and rockets into the territory in preparation for attacks on Israel instead of using that money to build a civil society. In June 2007, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in stunningly violent fashion, throwing handcuffed Fatah members from buildings and executing rivals in the street. Human Rights Watch called these actions "war crimes, pure and simple." Hundreds of Gazan civilians allied with Fatah fled to Erez crossing, hoping Israel would arrange for their safe transport to the West Bank, and knowing that, at the very least, Israel would protect their lives. Hamas made it clear that anyone who ventured back into Gaza would be arrested or shot, and it barred the delivery of food and water. I commanded the force overseeing Erez that week, and we delivered water and sandwiches to the civilians three times a day. Hamas managed to sneak two operatives into the Gazan side of Erez, who lobbed grenades and fired their AK-47s into the crowd of Palestinian civilians. I immediately understood that any return fire from our position risked striking the civilians cowering from the Hamas attack. I gave only my sharpshooter permission to fire, and we managed to chase off the Hamas attackers without hitting any civilians. Unfortunately, the terrorists did manage to kill a middle-aged Palestinian man and wound almost twenty civilians, including a young girl. The wounded were brought to Israel for treatment. The rest of the threatened civilians in Erez were transported by Israel to the West Bank, away from the grim future of Hamas-ruled Gaza.
After the consolidation of Hamas power, Israel exercised great restraint in Gaza, offering 'quiet for quiet' even as Hamas built up its arsenal and fired on southern Israel. Israeli citizens wondered aloud why the IDF was not defending its citizens from Hamas attacks. Our rules of engagement, always strict, were especially tight, as Israel was determined to make even imperfect cease-fires work. On multiple occasions, I was surprised to hear Gazan farmers tell me they would rather return to pre-Disengagement Gaza, when there was work, a reasonable ruling authority, and no armed Hamas squads terrorizing civilians who did not ally with the movement.
It has become painfully clear to Israelis that Hamas' demands on Israel are endless because they seek destruction, not peace. Despite Hamas' bluntness regarding its aims, the Western media continues to assume the organization is motivated by defensive goals, such as the end of the blockade or an Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 lines.
World opinion has tremendous strategic importance, as Israel learned in the 2006 war in Lebanon, where international pressure forced Israel to end the war prematurely. While international pressure is beginning to close Israel's operational window, thus far it seems Israel's military and political leaders have internalized the lessons of 2006. The public relations effort was ready before the campaign. The reserves were called up early and have had time to train and equip for a potential third phase of the operation. Israeli ground forces are using tactics that play to their strengths, such as avoiding built-up city centers unless absolutely necessary and reducing the threat to armor by leading with special forces and infantry.
Israel's strategic challenge is frustrating for its people, who know the sacrifices they have made to give peace a chance in Gaza. But Israel's military options are limited by an international community indifferent to those efforts and to Hamas' aims. If, as the operation indicates, Israel has learned the lessons from 2006, it may well come out of Cast Lead with its deterrence strengthened, a robust international force combating smuggling from Egypt, and its citizens free from Hamas rockets.
Lazar Berman served as an IDF infantry officer in Gaza from 2004-2007 and currently studies military operations at Georgetown University's Graduate School of Foreign Service.