Heavy toll of Gaza ground invasion tests resolve of Israeli public
Deaths of 25 soldiers strengthen determination of some, prompt fears of a quagmire for others
For almost two weeks, Israel practically bristled with confidence and pride: the Iron Dome air defence system was dependably intercepting Hamas rockets, the military was successfully repelling infiltration attempts on the ground and sea, and the conflict with Hamas was causing almost no casualties in Israel.
That changed in what seemed like a flash, when at least 25 soldiers were killed and scores injured - a predictable yet still stunning outcome of the fateful decision, announced on Thursday, to send troops and tanks over land into Hamas-ruled Gaza.
In a country where military service is mandatory for most citizens, and military losses are considered every bit as tragic as civilian ones, the reaction to the setbacks was electric. Newspapers and broadcasts have been dominated by images and tales of the fallen - mostly young faces barely out of high school - and interviews with parents concerned for offspring so clearly now imperiled.
Angst over the highest military toll since the 2006 Lebanon war now mixes with a cocktail of emotions: on one hand, a strong current of determination to press on with efforts to end the rocket fire from Gaza; on the other, the sinking feeling that a quagmire is at hand.
"It's ugly and it's no walk in the park," said Alon Geller, a 42-year-old legal intern from central Israel. "But we have to finish the operation. If we stop now before reaching our goals, the soldiers will have died in vain."
The Haaretz newspaper warned against mission creep and the "wholesale killing" of Palestinian civilians. "The soft Gaza sand ... could turn into quicksand," an editorial said on Monday. "There can be no victory here ... Israel must limit its time in the Strip."
There was always near-consensus among Israelis for the airstrikes aimed at ending the rocket fire, which they considered unreasonable and outrageous. The deaths among Palestinians caused by the air strikes - over 500 in two weeks, many of them civilians - are generally blamed by Israelis on Hamas, for locating launchers in civilian areas and for proving to be cynical and nihilistic, to Israeli eyes, at every turn.
But a ground invasion of Gaza is another story, and the government had clearly hesitated to take the risk. House-to-house fighting, tanks exposed in fields, the danger of a soldier being kidnapped, to be traded for thousands after years in captivity: It is an untidy and dispiriting affair.
The government felt it necessary to take such a risky step because despite all the damage being inflicted on Gaza by the air strikes, the Hamas rocket fire simply did not stop. Israeli officials also felt world opinion would understand after Hamas rejected a ceasefire proposal that Israel had accepted.
Complicating the situation from Israel's perspective, Hamas does not seem to be coming under significant pressure from the people of Gaza despite the devastation. While Gaza is no democracy and Hamas rules by force, this seems to reflect genuine support for Hamas' aim of breaking the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on the strip.
Emboldened, Hamas ratcheted up attempts to carry out deadly attacks against Israeli border communities through tunnels dug underneath the fence separating Israel from Gaza. For Israelis, that raised a terrifying spectre of families in placid farming areas on the edge of the Negev desert waking up to find swarms of Islamic militants in their midst.
"This brought it home that they are out to kill us and we have to stop them," said Yehuda Ben-Meir, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies. "No one can say he (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) was trigger-happy. It convinced the Israeli public that the decision taken by Netanyahu came from a sense of 'we have no other choice'."