Gaza rubble 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The key to any Israeli military operation is preventing collateral damage. The moment the IDF begins striking terror targets and accidentally kills innocent women and children is the same moment international pressure on Israel begins and the timer to the end of the military campaign starts ticking.
Since the IDF began its operation in the Gaza Strip last week - aimed at stopping Kassam rocket attacks on Sderot - it has been generally successful in keeping its strikes precise and on target. Cars carrying terrorists were bombed in the middle of streets and buildings housing weapons warehouses and factories were leveled. An international outcry - usually quick to come - was nowhere to be heard.
This impression was noted at Sunday's security cabinet meeting in Jerusalem by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin. A proponent of pinpoint strikes and a vocal opponent of a large-scale ground operation in Gaza, Diskin told the ministers that the Palestinian street was currently not aligned against Israel. This, he said, would last as long as the air strikes remained on target.
"The moment we start to kill innocent civilians, the sentiment on the streets will shift," he explained.
This is not so easy to prevent. On Sunday night, the IDF had a close call when it fired a missile at a group of armed Palestinians walking down a street in the Gaza City neighborhood of Sajiya. The Palestinians immediately claimed that the missile had struck the home of Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Haya and that six of the eight dead were his family members.
The IDF rejected the Palestinian claims and said that the strike was on a terror cell and had killed five cell members alongside three bystanders. One of those killed was Samah Faranwa, a known Hamas operative involved in the recent Kassam rocket fire on Sderot as well as the Independence Day kidnapping attempt.
To the IAF's credit, it has come a long way since it began implementing the targeted killing policy at the beginning of the second Intifada.
The air force no longer drops one-ton bombs as it did to kill Hamas leader Salah Shehada in 2002. Along with Shehada, 14 civilians, including children, died. Israel apologized for the loss of civilian life.
One of the reasons behind the IAF's improved operational ability is the type of missile used in air strikes.
Initially, the IDF had only one type of missile at its disposal. Today, it has at least five different weapons systems it can use in targeted strikes and is constantly on the lookout for new and more precise weapons.
When then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz raised the possibility of a targeted killing policy in the early years of the second Intifada, senior defense officials were opposed and asserted that the assassination of senior Hamas leaders would set the entire Middle East on fire.
Mofaz was determined, however, and took the proposal to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, who approved it.
After Hamas chief Abdul Aziz Rantisi and Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin were assassinated, Hamas went running to Egypt, asking for a cease-fire.
The policy has since become somewhat routine within the defense establishment.
Just look at the numbers: In 2004, only 10 percent of terrorists killed by Israel were eliminated in air strikes. In the first half of 2006, that number rose to almost 80%.
This prompted the security cabinet's decision on Sunday. Like Mofaz, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert oppose a widespread ground operation inside Gaza and believe that resumed pinpoint air strikes and targeted killings, largely suspended until the recent upsurge in Kassam attacks, can - if not stop the Kassams altogether - at least reduce them dramatically.
The IDF has greatly improved its strike method, and defense officials speak of a well-tuned Shin Bet-IDF mechanism that works on locating terror suspects. The controversial policy has even been adopted by other militaries, including the United States, which utilizes such air strikes in Iraq.
There is, however, great risk involved and the IDF knows all too well what a few failed strikes, or even one, can do.
By putting all of its emphasis on targeted strikes, the IDF risks botching a mission and repeating the events of last summer when three air strikes killed 13 Palestinian civilians in eight days.