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(photo credit: AP)
For years, an untenable reality prevailed in Sderot and the "Gaza envelope" communities.
Israel's civilians in the area endured a life of terror - families raising their children under constant threat of Kassam attack - on the front line of the battle against Gaza's rocket crews. And the IDF's ground forces, duty-bound to protect the citizenry from such terror and violence, were not called into action.
On Saturday night, that changed.
The current Israeli government, its prime minister doubtless bruised by the unhappy consequences of his last major resort to force, against Hizbullah in southern Lebanon in 2006, was not committed to using ground forces in Gaza when it began Operation Cast Lead on December 27. Rather, Defense Minister Ehud Barak explained at the time, the initial air offensive would be expanded and intensified as necessary.
The sense as the cabinet met this weekend, a week into the conflict, was that expansion and intensification were indeed necessary. Ministers Haim Ramon and Eli Yishai, who argue that Israel should be overtly seeking to bring an end to Hamas's rule in Gaza, abstained from the fateful cabinet vote only because the declared aims of the ground offensive were not wide enough; those abstentions apart, support was unanimous.
There was a certain incoherence to the declared goals of this operation eight days ago: Was the desired "restored security for the South" to be achieved merely by deterring Hamas from firing into Israel, or was Hamas to be deprived of its practical capacity to pose a threat?
In the event, it appears, the cabinet concluded that Hamas - even after eight days of air attacks on its bases, tunnels, missile silos and terror chiefs - would not be deterred. It was hardly a surprising conclusion, given Hamas's avowed goal of destroying Israel and its proven indifference to the loss of Palestinian lives. But it was one that Israel reached only reluctantly.
While Israel has made clear that its confrontation is with Hamas, and not with the people of Gaza, there is no denying the extent to which the people of Gaza contributed to the misery Hamas has wrought on both sides of the border.
Hamas seized power in Gaza in a coup in June 2007, but it had been legitimized by the Palestinian citizenry in a series of local election triumphs and, most significantly, in its overwhelming success in the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas's rise, indeed, is a rare case of a terrorist organization winning power through quasi-democratic elections.
The Palestinian public understandably saw the Fatah establishment as corrupt, and sought an alternative. But in choosing Hamas, it was plainly not deterred by the Islamists' commitment to the destruction of neighboring Israel, and their determined use of unthinkable means, including horrific suicide bombings, in pursuit of its goals.
In the 2006 elections, Hamas won over 65 percent of the vote in the Gaza Strip, including five out of eight PLC seats in Gaza City, three out of five in Khan Yunis and all five seats in Jabalya.
Insistently committed to their bleak, death-cult ideology, and to an interpretation of Islam that brands Israel fundamentally illegitimate, the Hamas leadership may never be deterred from seeking to harm Israel. They may never "get the message."
Israel can only hope, for their sake and for ours, that the Palestinian public is less obdurate.
But most of all, Israel now hopes and prays for the well-being of its people's army, reluctantly dispatched to Gaza on Saturday to safeguard the citizens of the South who have lived on the front line for so long.