On Saturday morning the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a massive military attack on Hamas personnel and infrastructure in its equivalent to America's "shock and awe" (PDF) campaign. After weeks of warnings for Hamas to stop its incessant rocket fire, which included a plea from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself on Arab satellite television, the Israeli cabinet approved the commencement of an attack. The results were staggering: in a matter of minutes, dozens of targets were nearly simultaneously struck. In the first day of fighting hundreds of Palestinians -- nearly all of them Hamas fighters -- were killed, including a number of senior Hamas leaders. Thanks to an Israeli misinformation campaign Hamas had not expected Israel to launch a daytime raid -- especially not on the Jewish Sabbath -- and thus the Islamist group was caught off guard.
In the two years since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, Hamas has been attempting to incorporate the successes of its ally Hezbollah. In the lull of the ceasefire over the past six months, and with Iranian and Syrian support, Hamas had amassed a large stockpile of rockets and mortars. The Izz ad din al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas' military arm, had been boosting its defensive capabilities and using the heavily populated Palestinian civilian territory to its advantage, calculating that one wrong move on the part of Israel would bring international pressure to bear on Israel to stop its counteroffensive before its objectives were met. Yet it appears Hamas has overstretched its hand and alienated much of the Arab world by aligning itself with Iran and Syria, as well as by seeking unrealistic demands for a renewed ceasefire. This has left the important Egyptian mediators frustrated with the group's "arrogance" and led to relatively little protest from Arab governments.
While many have spoken about the lessons Hamas has learned from Hezbollah over the years, it appears the Israeli political and military establishment has learned one or two of its own. When the 2006 war began, for instance, Olmert vowed to fight on until Israel's two kidnapped soldiers were released, the katyusha rockets being fired from Lebanon were stopped, and Hezbollah was pushed back from the Israeli-Lebanese border. These unrealistic goals were never achieved, and his comments made it all too easy for Hezbollah to claim victory when the fighting ceased.
This time around, Israel has maintained limited goals; namely, the weakening of Hamas and the reestablishment of a ceasefire along the lines of the previous one. The Israeli military establishment today recognizes that only one action can bring about a complete end to the violence from Gaza, and it would require the complete re-occupation of the Gaza Strip. At this point this appears a higher price than the government is willing to pay, and therefore the IDF is seeking the more realistic goal of a restoration of relative calm. Although the conflict has just begun, it seems the six months of time Israel has had to prepare for this operation are paying off. The IDF knows what it can and cannot do, and is implementing a mission that is both reasonable and achievable.
Diplomatically, Israel also seems to have improved. Unlike in the 2006 war, this operation seems to have been well planned. As it became clear that Hamas was not willing to end the rocket fire and renew the ceasefire, the Israeli government began an impressive information campaign. While Olmert pleaded his case with the Arab world directly, Israeli Foreign Minister Livni travelled to Egypt where she made it clear that it was Hamas who was not willing to compromise and Israel could not allow the rocket fire to continue. The international community saw firsthand Israeli restraint under the continued barrages of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. Everyone understood that in time Israel would need to respond to such aggression.
During these trying times the Israeli leadership would be wise to continue to demonstrate the controlled and calculated activities it has been conducting so far. Unless or until the Israeli public is prepared to re-conquer Gaza, the course Israel has now set for herself seems the most realistic way of dealing with Hamas.