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This is Israel’s dilemma from the moment the low-level Gaza conflict erupted into full-scale fighting six days ago. The Palestinian death toll is nearing 100, more than half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials. Israel has had three civilians killed by a rocket.
Invasion would push the casualty figures higher. House-to- house combat would mean more civilian deaths.
The Islamist Hamas fighters of Gaza and their junior cohorts have newly-acquired weapons such as armour-busting anti-tank guided missiles to greet the Israeli invaders, conceivably killing many more than last time.
The political fallout for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at home as well as abroad could be very negative. He is running for re-election in January. The impact at the ballot box of stopping before Hamas is effectively disarmed of its rockets could be almost as bad.
A ceasefire now may leave the Islamist forces still with plenty of rockets to threaten Israel in future, including long-range weapons that they have now proved can reach greater Tel Aviv, home to some three million people.
Hamas is an implacable enemy of “the Zionist occupier”. It denies Israel’s right to exist as a state and is pledged to take all of the land on which Israel was founded in 1948. It has spoken of a long-term truce, but never of a permanent peace.
Twelve-year-old boys in Sderot can tell the difference between a Palestinian rocket detonation and the sound of one being taken out in mid-air by Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor.
“You hear the final whoosh in the air when a rocket gets through,” said a boy at an outdoor cafe who played with his mobile phone during two detonations. “Those were Iron Dome.”
But he got up and moved to shelter when the raspy croak of Sderot’s alert signal sounded for a third time and a bang shook the ground. The warhead of the Gaza-made Qassam rocket is not powerful, but if you’re close enough it will kill you.
Iron Dome’s shield in the sky has been a game-changer. The army says it is knocking out 90 percent of incoming rockets that are targeted only if they are likely to hit residential areas.
Sderot’s police station has a weird collection of rusting, petaled iron tubes from the scores of rockets that have hit the town since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 from the Western-backed Palestinian faction of President Mahmoud Abbas.
They served as a backdrop for Barack Obama when he made a speech at the station while touring Sderot during a visit to Israel as a candidate in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
Netanyahu says no country in the world would tolerate a constant drizzle of potentially lethal rockets on its citizens, traumatising families with the threat of sudden death.
He has the sympathy of much of the West. But how long will that last if Gaza is once again overrun, enraging an Arab world no longer under the control of pro-Western autocrats but ruled by Islamists who support Hamas?