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CAIRO – The third Gaza war is playing out much like the first one more than five years ago: The harrowing civilian toll in Gaza is now at the center of the discourse, eclipsing the rocket attacks by Hamas militants that were the stated reason for the Israeli assault.
Then as now, a question persists: Beyond the carnage, are Israel's airstrikes achieving anything at all?
It ended messily for Israel in 2009. A U.N. commission investigated, Israel refused to cooperate, and the resulting report — since then partly disavowed by its own author, former South African judge Richard Goldstone — said Israel deliberately targeted civilians and might have committed war crimes, along with Hamas.
About 1,400 Palestinians, including many hundreds of civilians, were killed in the operation dubbed "Cast Lead," along with 13 Israelis. After 18 days this year, the civilian death toll of operation "Protective Edge" is at similar levels — and the proportion is higher. Israel's argument is similar as well: Hamas is to blame not only for attacking a much-stronger power with rockets, but also for operating from within heavily populated residential areas, as well as mosques, hospitals and schools.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Wednesday that some of the recent Israeli attacks, including those on homes and on a care center for the disabled, raise "a strong possibility that international law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes."
She also condemned indiscriminate Hamas attacks — including 3,000 rockets fired since July 8 that have killed several civilians in Israel — and said storing military equipment in civilian areas or launching attacks from there is unacceptable. But "the actions of one party do not absolve the other party of the need to respect its obligations under international law," she added.
International law can be a fuzzy and subjective thing, its application dependent on circumstances. The wider context also affects the degree of political pressure on Israel to stop. So it is important to note that there are also key differences between now and 2009. Here's a comparative look:
THE ROCKETS HAVE MORE RANGE
It is hard for outsiders to grasp the meaning, to Israelis, of Tel Aviv. The seaside metropolis of about 2 million is prosperous and fun, and an easy, generally liberal atmosphere prevails. It is a place of high tech, of electric nightlife, of diverse and highly Westernized culture, of surfing and gay pride parades. It is essential to an often unspoken but profound feeling that many Israelis cling to, which oddly aligns with what Arab critics would say: That they somehow do not belong in the Middle East.
In 2009, Hamas was firing relatively small projectiles with minimal range, mostly aimed at border communities surrounding the blockaded Gaza Strip. These are gritty places: hardscrabble towns that are relatively poor; or kibbutz farming communities whose people are often idealistic and pioneering. The people under fire there were certainly displeased, but by and large had no illusions about where they live.
Now Hamas is firing at Tel Aviv, which is 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the strip, and even at some cities beyond. One landed near Tel Aviv's airport, causing U.S. and European airlines to suspend flights. Millions are living with the threat of rockets every day. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can go on TV and ask Americans what they would do if New York or Chicago were under constant rocket attack. The argument resonates, the world seems to be listening, and even many in the Arab world agree. So Israel gets more room to maneuver.
IT'S NOT THE SAME HAMAS
Hamas rode relatively high in 2009, in its own particular way.
The Islamic militant group had legitimately won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, was denied the share of power it wanted by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, and in a little over a year had battled its way to full control of Gaza. It promised cleaner government than the Palestinian Authority and was relatively popular as a result. Israelis and much of the world, remembering suicide bombings and bus attacks, rejected Hamas as a terrorist group, to be blockaded and shunned. But in the Arab world at least, there was a veneer of legitimacy. Hamas had powerful supporters in Iran and the Gulf, and neighboring Egypt was not openly an enemy back then.
Much has happened since in the Arab world, and it hasn't helped Hamas. The Arab Spring brought a wave of Islamist successes, following by a widespread sense of their misrule. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which largely spawned Hamas, is now outlawed; its leaders are on trial and the group is portrayed by media as terrorists. Jihadis cut from a similar cloth as Hamas are considered in leading Arab circles to have brought destruction and disgrace in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Egypt's own Sinai region.
There is not much love for Israel in the Arab world, and growing horror at the civilian deaths in Gaza. But many in the region seem nonetheless pleased to see Hamas get hammered, and some would be happier still to see it gone. The Obama administration seems more involved in the region than that of President George W. Bush in its final days: Secretary of State John Kerry and other international negotiators are scrambling around the Middle East, but genuine pressure seems lacking. More maneuvering room for Israel.
NETANYAHU IS NO OLMERT
There are two kinds of governments in Israel when it comes to the heart of the matter, which is peace with the Palestinians and the possibility of a Palestinian state.
One kind was in power during "Cast Lead." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was clearly committed to pulling out of the West Bank one way or another and was making rather far-reaching offers to Abbas: a state in all of Gaza and the vast majority of the West Bank, and a share in Jerusalem. For a variety of reasons no deal was struck, but Olmert was perceived as serious on the Palestinian issue. This opens doors and spreads positivity, and Israel enjoyed some space as a result.
It's a very different story under Netanyahu. He dropped his lifelong opposition to a Palestinian state in recent years — but his terms are very far from those of the Palestinians. Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank is roaring ahead, and nine months of peace talks got scarcely beyond quibbles and procedure. Netanyahu's own party continues to oppose a Palestinian state, and there is a sense of a wink about his moves in this regard. And so the region and the world view him with considerable suspicion. If he were fighting anyone but Hamas, the atmosphere for Israel would be most uncomfortable by now.
A SENSE OF PREDICTABLE FUTILITY
During the 2008-9 campaign, it was not exactly clear what the outcome would be. Would Hamas break under the assault? Would the people of Gaza blame Hamas for their suffering and overthrow the group? Is victory possible? It was not even clear whether Israel ruled out reoccupying the strip, from which it had withdrawn four years earlier.
The answers to those questions are clearer now. In both campaigns, as well as another one in late 2012, Hamas has shown that it will simply continue firing rockets no matter what the outcome to the people of Gaza. Hamas does not seem on the verge of being overthrown despite its heavy-handed rule. And the people actually support Hamas' stated goal of ending the Israeli-Egyptian blockade so much that there seems to be scant pressure on Hamas to give in. On the Israeli side, there is minimal desire to retake the inhospitable strip.
It's also clear that Israel's various efforts to minimize the deaths with a variety of warnings aren't working well. For the third time, the world sees images of whole families buried under rubble, of children in a morgue. And for all its claims of precision, Israel's military is having trouble producing detailed explanations of why any particular building was hit.
It lends a sense of predictable futility to the proceedings, and raises questions in Israel itself about the strategy. The answer tends to be that doing nothing in response to rocket fire on cities is not an option. That logic dominates the Israeli discourse for now. But to many, it is starting to feel uncomfortable nonetheless.
Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s and currently leads Associated Press' text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan.