How does Israel confront the Gaza of below, without causing unnecessary anguish to the Gaza of above?

When the clear strategy of Hamas is to locate itself within the civilian population, it is agonising to resolve

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There are two Gazas. The first is the Gaza of the Palestinian people; of men, women and children who wish to work, play and live in peace; the Gaza we see on our TV screens; today a place of genuine pain and suffering.

But there is a second Gaza, subterranean Gaza. It is a web of hundreds of fortified tunnels, constructed for smuggling weapons and cross border attacks. It is a massive complex of thousands of storage basements and bunkers, below schools and mosques, filled with tens of thousands of launchers and missiles, whether short-range rockets constructed in Gaza, with electricity provided by Israel's power plant in Ashkelon, or long-range weapons shipped in from Iran on boats, like the KLOS-C intercepted by Israel earlier this year. It is a network of terrorist leaders, many trained alongside Hezbollah and other terrorists in Iran, now returned, taking up their cowardly positions in command centres within and below the heart of civilian areas, and most cynically of all in the basement of Shifa, Gaza's central hospital.

It is from this second Gaza, this Gaza of below, that over 1000 rockets have been fired on Israel in the past week, over 11,000 since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. As the number of missiles has risen, so has their range, so that today more than 3.5 million Israelis are within reach, and must live their lives within seconds of bomb shelters.

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The dilemma that Israel has faced this past week is simply put. How to confront that Gaza of below, without causing unnecessary anguish to the Gaza of above? Simple to put but agonising to resolve, particularly when the clear strategy of Hamas has been not only to locate itself within the civilian population, but also to force that population to serve as human shields. As Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Al Aqsa TV, the official Hamas television channel, last week: “The people oppose the Israeli fighter planes with their bodies alone... We, the [Hamas] movement, call on our people to adopt this method in order to protect the Palestinian homes.”

Israel's response to Hamas provocation has been twofold. First, it sought to avoid confrontation altogether. For years residents of Israel's south have lived with the threat of terrorist attacks, while Israel has limited its response to building shelters and developing Iron Dome, a passive missile defence system which shoots down rockets after they leave the Gaza Strip. Even over the past three weeks of continued escalation, Israel's repeated message to Hamas was to step back from the brink. Quiet would be met with quiet. Yet Hamas was bent on escalation. In the seven days before Israel reluctantly decided to launch Operation Protective Edge, Hamas fired an average of seventeen rockets per day.

Second, when it could fail to respond no longer, Israel made strenuous efforts to focus its attacks on the terrorist infrastructure, successfully targeting 3000 rockets and 800 missile launchers. At the same time it took extraordinary measures to limit the damage to the civilians above and around these targets. One is hard-pressed to find an example of another conflict in which a military used phone calls, text messages, leaflets, and warning shots to alert residents to impending strikes. Where civilians remained in spite of these measures—often under instructions from Hamas—attacks were frequently aborted.

Notwithstanding these efforts, there has been a heavy civilian toll on the Palestinian side. Since Israel uses its arms to protect its civilians, whereas Hamas uses its civilians to protect its weapons, there has been a predictable asymmetry of casualties. But proportionality is not a tit-for-tat numbers game. Only perverse logic would deem Israel's actions more proportionate if Israel allowed more of its civilians to be killed. Proportionality is measured with regard to the threat one faces. In Israel's case this threat is a stockpile of thousands of rockets and missiles, threatening the bulk of Israel's population, in the hands of a terrorist regime committed to Israel's destruction.

Two Gazas. The Gaza of above is held tragically hostage to Gaza of below. But there is a third Gaza: the Gaza that could have been. In 2005 Israel uprooted more than 8000 Israelis and more than twenty settlements from Gaza, in the hope that Gazans would build a prosperous society, with tourists flocking to its beautiful beaches and agriculture flourishing in the greenhouses Israel left behind. Since then the greenhouses have been smashed and Gazan society brutalised by the Hamas regime.

When this terrorist regime is finally disarmed and dismantled, this third Gaza may yet become a reality.

Daniel Taub is Israel's Ambassador to the United Kingdom

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