Israel was not eager to send its ground forces into Gaza against Hamas, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Saturday night, with masterful understatement. But after more than a week of air assaults on Hamas's offices, training bases, smuggling tunnels, missile silos, terror chiefs' homes and more, the faint hope that Hamas might by now have gotten the message, and internalized that Israel would no longer tolerate relentless rocket attacks on its citizenry, had plainly gone unrealized. No matter the suffering its insistent attacks on Israel had caused the Palestinian people it has sought to govern, Hamas had kept firing those rockets for eight days, deeper and deeper into Israel, bringing 800,000 Israeli civilians into range. And so, said a sorrowful Barak - who acknowledged having thought twice, and then three times, about whether a ground offensive was truly inescapable - the order was given for land forces to enter the Strip. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, overseeing a second resort to force in less than three years across a border to which Israel had withdrawn unilaterally in the misplaced expectation of tranquility, was quoted as saying that "there are moments when there is no choice." He had done all he could to avoid the use of ground forces, the prime minister said, including attempting to maintain and then restore a misnamed "cease-fire" in recent months, which Hamas had abused to improve its rockets and prepare more effectively for conflict. "I wanted to be sure I had tried everything," Olmert was said to have told his fellow ministers at the fateful weekend cabinet meeting during which the ground offensive was approved. In truth, Israel has been much more than merely reluctant to re-enter the treacherous Gaza Strip. It has made plain its fervent desire to avoid a major ground offensive - to the extent that Barak even weighed a "time out" and possible consequent cease-fire as early as last Tuesday, when Operation Cast Lead was only four days old. THE RESIDENTS of Sderot and the "Gaza envelope" communities have suffered on the front line for eight years - raising families under the abiding threat that Kassams could shatter their lives at any moment. The rocket fire has only escalated since Israel wrenched its civilians out of Gaza in 2005 and removed all military presence as well, leaving the Palestinians free to build a nascent state there. But instead, Gaza became Hamastan, and the fear that rockets from there would come to hit Ashkelon proved too optimistic: in fact, the rockets have reached much further. While the citizenry suffered, week after week, month after month, the IDF was not called into action. As Hamas grew stronger, and progressed ever further in its goal to become as entrenched as Hizbullah, Iran's other proxy army, the dangers attending any ground incursion by the IDF into Gaza grew greater. Of course, as Hamas's rearming continued, the danger of allowing it to continue to thrive and strengthen grew more unthinkable, too. And so, as Barak explained in his sorrowful address on Saturday night, the time had come "to do what has to be done." Barak's was no gloating speech of imminent victory - no mirror to Hamas's public displays of bloodlust. It was, rather, a sober assessment of "difficult days ahead" - days that Israel had hoped to avoid, days of further suffering for the residents of the South, days of challenge for the IDF, days that would see lives endangered. But ultimately, said the defense minister, it was the IDF's job to defend and protect the people of Israel, to safeguard the home front. And after eight years in which the home front, untenably, became the southern front line, on Saturday night the IDF was finally ordered to assert its obligation: to fight a vicious enemy and to safeguard the people of Israel. For Israelis, and for all those who recognize the threat to freedom everywhere posed by the death-cult Islamist extremism of which Hamas is only a part, it now remains to hope that the IDF's actions in the coming days restore peace to the South, and restore the tranquility that all civilians have the right to expect. And may a most reluctant military return to Gaza help deter Israel's enemies from continuing to threaten a state that seeks peace, that thinks twice and three times before going to war, but that can and will effectively protect itself when it must.