Kidnapping Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for the release of Arab prisoners is horrible behavior for groups that claim international recognition and political legitimacy, as Hamas and Hezbollah do. The same applies to lobbing rockets over Israel's borders in the hope that they might kill unsuspecting civilians. In response to such unacceptable provocations, Israeli forces are now engaged in major military operations in Gaza, to the south, and in
Lebanon, to the north.
But even when acting justifiably in the face of aggression, Israel best serves its long-term security interests by acting wisely and proportionately. Its guiding principle must always be to focus military actions as narrowly as possible on those individuals, organizations and governments directly complicit in the attacks, while sparing the civilian populations that surround them.
That is, of course, far easier said than done. Military actions in inhabited areas cannot be fine-tuned. Yet surely the repeated lesson of recent history is that inflicting pain and humiliation on Arab civilians does not make them angry at the terrorists who provoked the violence. It makes them angrier at Israel.
It is too soon to judge how well Israel is hewing to this standard in Lebanon. The political context there is different from that in Gaza. Hezbollah, whose militia is to blame for the kidnappings and rocket fire, has deputies in Lebanon's Parliament and ministers in its cabinet. But it is not the main party of government, as Hamas is in the Palestinian territories. And Lebanon, unlike Gaza and the West Bank, is a legally sovereign state. A great deal of international effort has been invested in trying to free it of foreign military and political meddling, and restore real content to its sovereignty.
Obviously, that effort has not been fully successful. Hezbollah's role as an autonomous militia controlling the international border with Israel makes that painfully clear, and Israel cannot be expected to put up with it. But in responding, it needs to make careful distinctions between Hezbollah guerrillas and Lebanese civilians; calling the rockets an "act of war" by Lebanon's government was not a good idea.
In Gaza, where Israeli operations have been going on for two weeks and seem to be expanding day by day, it is not too soon to question Israeli military strategy, as many Israelis themselves are now doing. Israel's initial foray into the southern part of Gaza, after one of its soldiers was kidnapped near the border, was appropriate, as were the initial airstrikes on bridges, meant to impede the movements of the kidnappers.
But after these steps failed to produce their intended result, the operation seemed to lose its clear territorial and counterterrorist definition and began to take on a perverse momentum of its own. Israel should not back off its efforts to secure the release of its kidnapped soldier. But it needs to refocus its Gaza operations on that very specific goal.