Israel has lost at least 28 of its soldiers just four days into the Gaza ground operation, nearly triple the number of soldiers killed in its last such incursion. That makes this the deadliest fighting for the Israeli military since 2006, when it fought a month-long war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
At funerals across the country, mourners have gathered to remember the fallen soldiers – including nearly 20,000 people who came to honor dual citizen Staff Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli of Texas.
But despite the casualties and nationally shared grief, Israel shows no sign of letting up in Gaza.
In a country that has been almost perpetually in conflict with its neighbors since its founding, soldiers and civilians alike resist giving in to one’s enemies, on the principle that doing so invites worse calamities down the line. For now at least, Israelis are not faltering in their support for an operation the government says was necessary after it exhausted all other options to crush Hamas’s offensive capabilities.
“I think we’re still pretty far from that point,” says Prof. Yehuda Ben Meir, director of the National Security and Public Opinion project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. “The immediate reaction is in the opposite direction. After the initial shock and trauma, you have a resilience.”
According to one poll, taken on July 20, 80 percent of Israeli Jews supported the operation, and 77 percent were opposed to a cease-fire. So far, 611 Palestinians have died in the conflict.
New Hamas capabilities
That unity appears to be holding even as Hamas fighters demonstrate capabilities that have reportedly surprised Israeli officers. The militants seem to have taken a page out of Hezbollah's war manual with their elaborate underground tunnel network – and are moving more aggressively against Israeli troops, in keeping with their motto “to live with dignity, or die trying.”
One veteran of Gaza operations, an officer who left the fighting area for a few hours, told Haaretz: "I've been to Shujaiyeh before, but I've never seen it – or Hamas – like this before. Their equipment and tactics are just like Hezbollah. Missile traps and IEDs everywhere – and they stay and fight instead of melting away like in the past."
In one of the worst incidents this weekend, Hamas ambushed seven soldiers manning an M113 APC – an old, much-criticized armored personnel carrier that hasn't been used in Gaza since two devastating attacks a decade ago. Six were killed, and the seventh – Sgt. Oron Shaul – is missing. Hamas claims to have kidnapped him, and posted his ID number on Twitter.
But it has shown no proof that he is alive. In the past Israel has negotiated with other militant organizations for the remains of its fallen.
Col. Lior Lotar (res.), former head of the IDF's POW and MIA department, says that development will not affect the IDF's overall operation, though it could require some short-term adjustments as they search for evidence that would determine whether he was killed in action."The fate of one soldier, even if it is a … beloved member of the national family will not impact the strategic situation," Col. Lotar told foreign media. "But it can impact the next 24 hours."
The tunnel factor
The Israeli military knew well the dangers of urban warfare before it launched the ground operation on Thursday night, having encountered similar conditions in the 2009 Gaza war.
But Hamas has built an elaborate tunnel network in the intervening 5-1/2 years. That's allowed militants to strike the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from underground hiding places and then quickly retreat.
The scope of the network also has required IDF troops to advance farther westward into urban areas than may have been anticipated to find and destroy tunnels leading under Israel’s border, where several infiltration attempts have been thwarted just in the past week.
Deep connections between society and military
The death of Israeli soldiers strikes a deep chord in Israeli society, where military service is mandatory for all 18-year-old Jews with the exception of ultra-Orthodox men and religious women.
During Israel’s 1982-2000 war with Lebanon, an antiwar movement called Four Mothers, which was founded by parents of combat soldiers, helped double support for a withdrawal from Lebanon, from 35 to 70 percent.
But some say such withdrawals have not been good for Israel’s security interests.
Six years after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, it lost 43 civilians to Hezbollah rockets in the 2006 war, in addition to the soldiers killed. And since withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, it has fought three battles with Hamas, with a total of 40 soldiers confirmed dead so far.
Col. Shaul Shay (res.), who served on the National Security Council during the 2009 Gaza war, says that while the IDF strives to limit the number of soldier casualties, the death toll never factors into military planning.
“When we speak about the IDF and IDF missions, the only discussion is over the mission and how to fulfill it and how to achieve it,” he says. “I think that the government in this case has very high support of the public, because it’s quite clear that the government did almost everything to prevent this conflict.”
Israel has indicated it has no intention of giving Hamas concessions during cease-fire negotiations out of fear of its violent tactics.
"There cannot be a reward for terror," said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in a conference call with foreign reporters yesterday, calling on Washington to make the Egyptian cease-fire initiative the focus of its diplomatic efforts.
So long as the Israeli public is seeing results from the ground operation, they are likely going to be willing to withstand mounting casualties, says Prof. Ben Meir. So far, the IDF says it has destroyed 66 shafts leading to 23 tunnels.
"There is no magic number – it depends on a combination of circumstances: the results achieved, the number of casualties, how long it continues, and what’s going on in diplomatic arena," he says. “At least for next few days, unless something totally unexpected or catastrophic in nature occurs, I don’t think there’s a serious danger that there will be a major erosion of public support for the military operation or for the government."