There is a new war now going on in the middle east, or perhaps I should say yet another chapter of a very, very old war, with the Israeli army fighting (separately) Palestinians in Gaza and Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon. In the process of this war, rockets and missiles have been launched into civilian population centers (by Hezbollah) and infrastructure, government buildings and a major international airport have been bombed (by Israel).
While there is no question that Israel has been responsible for a lot of provocations and has certainly ratcheted up the stakes in this war with their invasions of Gaza and Lebanon, it has become increasingly harder for me to condemn anything that they do. That is because every time things cool down and there is some semblance of peace, it always seems to be the Palestinians or Hezbollah who break the cease-fire.
Since withdrawing from the Gaza strip six months ago, Israel has on the whole showed restraint in the face of rocket attacks and other actions against their territory (and the fact that some of the rockets have come from Gaza, despite the fact that until a week ago there had been no Israeli occupation in Gaza since the pullout, shows that for many Palestinians it isn't about fighting 'occupation' at all, but about killing Israelis). And the announcement just before this all started up again, now buried and forgotten under the rubble of war, that Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had agreed on the text of a joint declaration that implicitly, though not explicitly, recognized Israel, was earth shattering in itself, and showed that ever so slowly, the wheels of progress were beginning to turn. I had blogged following the stunning victory by Hamas in January's election about how I was optimistic in the long term (though pessimistic in the short term) about the prospects for peace, as Hamas would, because of the day by day mundane matters of running a government, be forced to soften their views and eventually at least in fact, if not in word, recognize Israel. And the joint declaration of two weeks ago seemed to bear this out, as it was historic in being the first time that the leaders of Hamas had ever expressed a willingness to put their name on a document that in any way recognized Israel.
So why are things so very different this week? It began when Hamas failed to crack down on attacks against Israel by Islamic Jihad and other groups. Israel responded by airstrikes against members of these groups, where they could be found, and also against Palestinian government offices, which they did back when Yassir Arafat was President and was failing to restrain militants. Hamas responded by calling off their self-imposed 'truce,' and in an obviously well planned attack, Palestinian militants operating out of the Gaza strip dug a tunnel under the border, and kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Israel blamed Hamas, and statements to the contrary, this seems to be a particularly good assumption because Hamas has a much better organization in the strip than other terror groups, and the military precision with which the attack was carried out seems to indicated a well-organized, disciplined group with generous support, hence Hamas. Since then of course war has broken out. The Israelis know their soldier is being held somewhere in Gaza, and his recovery is their top priority. Whether Hamas was trying to placate their own base (who still want to annihilate Israel) after agreeing to the document, whether they believed that seizing the soldier would lead to negotiations for an exchange of prisoners, or whether they simply planned to use him for propaganda purposes, it is clear that they made a disastrous miscalculation.
The second theater of this war is in Lebanon. After the Gaza battle broke out, Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon began firing rockets into towns in northern Israel. This caused Israel to attack into Lebanon to cripple Hezbollah's capabilities to launch more rocket attacks. In the ensuing fighting, the guerillas proved themselves to be more adept at short range fighting than Israel had estimated (another disastrous miscalculation, this time by Israel) and they captured two more Israeli soldiers. Israel responded with a full scale invasion of the area and airstrikes against not only Hezbollah, but Lebanese government targets (the Lebanese government is weak and sponsors Hezbollah partly because they don't have any choice not to, but would likely sponsor them even if they could do anything about them.) Hezbollah launched two long range missiles, which the Israelis didn't know they had, into the city of Haifa, deep inside of Israel (likely they had planned to launch them at a time when such an event would have really embarrassed the Israelis, such as when a U.S. leader was visiting, but with the Israeli army on the move in southern Lebanon, were faced with a 'use them or lose them' situation). Israel quickly learned from their intelligence network that Hezbollah planned to fly the captured soldiers out to Iran, and bombed the Beirut airport to prevent the flight. The bombing closed the airport for the forseeable future and probably won't help recover the soldiers (who could easily be transported across the border into Syria, and then flown to Iran when their captors believe they have sufficiently covered their tracks.)
What we see then is one escalation, then another and then another. However, as I said above, while believing that Israel has certainly contributed to the current situation, I have to support their right to respond, since response requires a first act, and unfortunately, it seems that (with the exception of the 1967 war) every time something like this starts, the first shot always seems to be taken by their opponents.