Israel has every right to protect itself.” We’ve now heard this slogan over and over again in reference to Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces’ latest campaign, which many opinion leaders worldwide have labeled “the Gaza Massacre.”

Various pundits and politicians – many of whom purport to truly care about the region’s peace – have debated the causes of the conflict, the legitimacy of the Israeli operations, the proportionality of the damages, the future costs of rebuilding and the long-term effects of the ongoing humanitarian crisis. But by framing Israel’s incursions into the Palestinian territories in terms of self-defense, the political commentariat has done the region a great disservice by overlooking the magnitude of the crisis and ignoring the threat to Israel’s long-term security.

ost importantly, Israel’s strategists and spokespersons (as well as the various “friends of Israel” who chime in on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC from time to time) appear to have ignored the lessons learned during the Second Lebanon War of 2006. By way of reminder, the most important commandment that one can draw from Israel’s experiences “fighting” terrorism in Lebanon is: Thou shalt not hope to convince indigenous populations to relinquish their support for local militant groups if the result of thy actions is viewed as an attack on their civilians and public infrastructure.

Israel’s operations in Lebanon in 2006 made clear that this sort of warfare is likely to galvanize public support for the local militant groups. But when the Israeli Air Force dropped a barrage of bombs upon Beirut’s roads, hospitals, airfields and residential areas during the summer of 2006, the world decided to remain silent. Israel was, after all, only “protecting” itself.

This silence harmed Israelis above all. The Lebanese people threw their weight behind Hezbollah, which soon transformed from a small group of Shias into a swollen mass of Sunnis, Druzes and even Christians who all felt wronged by Israel. Instead of weakening Hezbollah, Israel only legitimized its rhetoric; rather than “protecting” the interests of all Israelis, the Olmert government managed to alienate more conciliatory factions – in Lebanon and all across the region, dampening hopes of a sustainable peace.

The present situation is no different. Regardless of who controls the Palestinian territories, the people living in the Gaza Strip have genuine humanitarian needs (i.e. food, water and medical supplies, currently provided by Hamas) and Prime Minister Olmert’s decision to attack schools, mosques, clinics and marketplaces has caused more than just physical damage. As Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist for Haaretz reminds us: “The suffering in the south renders everything kosher, as if the horrible suffering in Gaza pales in comparison. Everyone is hungry for revenge, and that hunger is excused by the need for `deterrence,’ after it was already proved that the killing and the destruction in Lebanon did not achieve it.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the children of Gaza who now face the task of burying their families have rallied behind Hamas more zealously than ever before. Israel’s Ministry of Defense seems to view these deaths as lamentable and unavoidable collateral damage. The Olmert government refuses to listen to the sobbing of Palestinian children and mounting roars of anger.

Gaby Schrieber, an Israeli psychiatrist in the town of Sderot (located at the epicenter of this conflict) points out that while Israeli children in the Negev receive high-quality medical care and psychological counseling to treat the effects of Hamas-induced shellshock, schoolchildren in Gaza receive no such care. Dr. Schrieber fears that the sheer stress and pent-up mental trauma in these children will translate into a desire for revenge against Israel.

As the death toll in Gaza continues to increase, the repeated assurances from the Olmert government – that Israel respects the doctrine of proportionality, that Israel is striving to minimize civilian casualties and that Israel wants a modus vivendi – ring hollow. It is extremely unfortunate to see that a vast majority of Israel has fallen prey to its government’s rhetoric, as the electoral showdown between Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu looms just around the bend.

Still, there is hope. Many Israelis of good conscience have recognized the extent to which this hastily-planned operation jeopardized the lives of the future children of Israel. These are everyday Israeli citizens: teachers, nurses, doctors, dentists and even soldiers. The world should applaud them and, in particular, the Israeli reservists who have refused to fight in Gaza. These soldiers face serious consequences, including court-martial and imprisonment, but they deserve medals. They understand – better than their own superiors – how the cycle of violence works. They know that, in general, indiscriminately violent military offensives give rise to feelings of resentment, which, in turn, lay the foundation for future terrorist attacks.

Yes, “Israel has every right to protect itself,” but the Israeli government could create far more goodwill (a reliable antidote to terrorism) among the Palestinians by extending an olive branch.

Sameer Anwar is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. Jeff Morshed is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.

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