The initial images from Israel's retaliatory strikes against the Hamas government in Gaza aren't pretty. One that keeps reappearing is of a terrified, bleeding Palestinian girl, maybe 7 years old, clutching her father's arm as they rush from a bombed-out building. Yes, the guy might be a Hamas operative for all I know. But I doubt she is. There's another picture that keeps cropping up -- the bodies of three small Palestinian boys, killed in an Israeli air strike Monday morning, wrapped in funeral shrouds and laid out on a dirty floor.
You could say I don't have the stomach for war -- you'd be right. As of press time on Monday, 350 Palestinians have been killed, some 60 of them civilians, many of those children. Two Israelis were killed by Hamas rocket attacks on Monday as well. I am not a fan of the inevitable innocent blood and guts that Israel's far superior military force will necessarily spill in its fight to stop Hamas from shooting rockets into Israel whenever it wants. And yet, of course, I deeply believe Israel has the right, the obligation, to stop Hamas from its capricious acts of terror. I was in Sderot and southern Israel earlier this year, and I spoke with many residents, including many children, about what it's like to live amid a near-constant rain of rockets and missiles.
"We want peace, but the missiles won't stop," a 12-year-old boy named Stav told me. Two years ago a Qassam rocket fell on his house. It was only sheer luck that his photo did not end up on the Internet as well. "They just send more and more. We can't play in the fields, because if there's a warning siren, there's no place to run."
One of my strongest memories from my trip is of a shadowy smudge on a sidewalk at Sapir College, near Sderot. A student was standing there when a Kassam struck. All that was left was that darkened spot. What moved me in my talks with young people around Sderot was how little anger they felt toward Palestinians in general.
"I don't hate them," a 16-year-old named Tal told me last June. The kibbutz where she lives is just two kilometers from Gaza City. When she looks out her window each morning, she sees the minarets. Two days before I spoke with her, a missile had landed outside her front door. "I hear about the people who live there, and I don't have a reason to hate them. But trust me, it's hard."
No people in any nation on earth can abide such terror. Since Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005, Hamas has fired 6,300 rockets into Israel, killing 10 people and wounding 780. Many people, especially around Sderot, say Israel waited far too long to do what it began doing over the weekend. Maybe so. The undeniable fact is the missiles would have only gotten worse and the attacks deadlier.
On the other hand, it is hard to be optimistic that Israel's retaliation, for all its justification, will succeed in the various aims its boosters have claimed for it. Will it topple Hamas, as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asserts? Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert didn't promise that in his pre-battle declaration. Hamas is deeply entrenched, democratically elected (by the way, thank you President George W. Bush, for pushing for those elections), heavily funded via Iran and thuggishly powerful (where was the world's condemnation when Hamas killed more than 50 Palestinians in 2007 while fighting Fatah in the streets of Gaza?).
Will the offensive stop the rocket attacks, as Olmert promised it would on the eve of this campaign? Well, the prime minister attempted the same strategy in Lebanon in 2006, and since then Hezbollah has only built up its arsenal.
Will the war somehow bring peace, as Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi predict, writing in The Wall Street Journal? Their argument is that until Hamas is deterred from firing rockets from territory Israel once occupied, no Israeli will support further territorial compromise. That makes sense, but raises the question of whether a generation of Gazans battered by occupation and war will be in the mood to make peace; whether their true masters in Iran and Syria will allow them; and whether Israel will be able to defeat Hamas any more than it was able to defeat its last archrival, Fatah, or its current one, Hezbollah?
Will the war, as analyst Felice Friedson writes in these pages, herald a new alignment of Middle East power that allies Israel with its former enemies Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia against Iran-supported Hamas and Hezbollah? That has already happened -- but the thing about strange bedfellows is they are ... strange. That Israel might align itself with some of the most dictatorial and anti-democratic regimes in the Middle East is hardly cheery news.
No, the best that could come of this very bloody reality is a stretch of quiet for the deserving residents of Israel's south. Unlike Hamas, I don't like to see dead children -- no matter their race, creed or nationality.