Gaza Conflict: 'The Street Smells of Death'

By SPIEGEL Staff

Despite the horrifically high death toll among civilians, Israel continues its war in the Gaza Strip, even threatening to launch a full invasion. So far the United Nations and the European Union have failed in their attempts to bring about a cease-fire.

They return after the sun has set over Gaza. All that can be heard at first is the droning of diesel engines. Then the headlights cut through the darkness and Israeli Merkava tanks emerge from the clouds of dust churned up by their heavy chains.

Soldiers covered in sweat and dirt climb from the cockpits, young conscripts hardly 20 years old. They have spent the last three days and nights in their tanks, where they have eaten, slept and relieved themselves.

They embrace each other, sing songs and talk about how smoothly everything went. "How many terrorists did you kill?" someone asks Benni from Petach Tikva. "Three," says Benni, which earns him a congratulatory slap on the back. But Benni isn't in the mood for celebration. "I had to do it, but they are humans, too." "Oh, come on," says the other soldier, "you're a great guy."

A female soldier appears carrying a white plastic bag containing mobile phones, which the soldiers were required to drop off before going into battle. Now they reach into the bag, pull out their phones and call home: "Ima, hakol beseder" -- "Mama, everything is all right." Friends from Jerusalem have brought a dozen pizzas. They are cold, but the soldiers don't mind. Who knows when they will be eating pizza again? "We're supposed to go back in again," one of them says, nodding in the direction of Gaza.

The soldiers are confident that their mission was a success. Unlike the 2006 Lebanon war, communications between intelligence and the troops is functioning well this time, says an officer as he bites into his pizza. "We are hitting our targets and eliminating the terrorists."

From ordinary soldiers to the military leadership, from vegetable vendors to cabinet ministers, at the end of week two of Operation Cast Lead, Israel is relatively free of doubt when it comes to making sense of its war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

And why shouldn't it be? The Israeli army has systematically advanced from the north, east and south, divided the Gaza Strip into two zones, encircled Gaza City and captured Khan Yunis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip.

Nevertheless, this is a war without victory, a war that can hardly be won any more, be it morally or militarily. How can these young Israeli soldiers defeat Hamas fighters who carry children in their arms as living shields, mingle with civilians and hide out in hospitals and schools? Hamas celebrates a triumph with each Israeli soldier it kills or abducts, no matter how small that number is. But Israel loses with each dead civilian.

A Double Strategy

There is growing international pressure to end this war soon. According to a UN report, by Saturday morning the conflict had already claimed 800 Palestinian lives, including more than 60 women and 250 children. Last Friday, the UN Security Council called for an immediate cease-fire, a demand that both the Israeli government and Hamas promptly rejected. At least the two sides have agreed to a daily three-hour pause in the fighting.

The war is still considered a success in Israel, where most newspapers have celebrated "our heroes," and the death toll among Israeli troops -- 11 soldiers by Saturday morning -- has not raised any significant doubts yet. After the first phase of air attacks, after the second phase of tank incursions in Gaza, the third phase of this war, an invasion with ground troops, could change everything. The previous balance could very well tip in the opposite direction.

In the third phase of the war, tens of thousands of reservists would be sent to fight in street battles in Gaza City, a deadly, booby-trapped labyrinth where snipers lie in waiting. There would undoubtedly be many dead on both sides, and the strategic gains would once again be minimal. The Israeli government knows this, which is why it is currently pursuing a double strategy. On the one hand, the army is preparing for the third phase while, on the other hand, cease-fire negotiations are underway behind closed doors.

The Israeli government is deeply divided. While Defense Minister Ehud Barak favors a cease-fire brokered by Egypt, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni remains unbending. "We are not thinking about pulling back," says Livni.

By the end of the second week of Operation Cast Lead, both war and peace were options for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for whom this war will be among his last official acts.

In that second week, the world emerged from its shocked apathy and looked on with horror as the Israelis used enormous firepower against densely populated cities.

The aerial bombardments were followed, more or less inevitably, by the dirty war. Hundreds of thousands protested around the world. The Pope condemned the carnage, Belgium wanted to evacuate injured children, Venezuela expelled the Israeli ambassador and the International Red Cross sharply criticized the Israeli army for blocking emergency aid for wounded civilians. And John Ging, director of the UN's Gaza relief operations, attracted widespread attention when he criticized Israel for inflicting immense suffering on Palestinian civilians.

Map: Israel and the Palestinian territories
DER SPIEGEL

Map: Israel and the Palestinian territories

Since then, the world's attention has been focused on the Gaza Strip, that tiny sliver of land along the Mediterranean so full of misery and despair. The UN became involved, as did the European Union and various governments. Negotiators flew back and forth and consultations were held at every level. French President Nicolas Sarkozy took a leading role, traveling hurriedly from one Arab capital to the next, disproving his reputation of doing everything only for effect. Sarkozy, together with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, eventually presented a plan that could lead to a ceasefire.

US President-elect Barack Obama broke his silence for the first time. After all, the United States could see terrorist attacks as the expected consequence of this latest Middle East war, following a demonstrated pattern of violence begetting violence, in the Middle East and elsewhere. The war could also destabilize the region's more moderate regimes, which often face difficulties containing extremist groups of their own. And it will probably benefit Iran once again, the mullah-controlled state that has gained in prominence in the region since the 2003 Iraq war.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on unusually good terms with Sarkozy last week, said that there is no time to be lost. The situation is by no means hopeless. The peace place hammered out by the French and Egyptian presidents addresses two important issues: a secret tunnel system Hamas has developed in southern Gaza, which is part of the reason Israeli decided to launch its offensive, and the Israeli blockade of Gaza, one of the main reasons behind Hamas's rocket attacks on Israel.

The Israelis are holding a man who could become a key figure in peace negotiations: Marwan Barghouti, a senior official with the Palestinian Fatah movement. Impartial observers believe that he could serve as a middleman between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, perhaps contributing a small step to achieving the two-state solution that most diplomats continue to believe represents the only chance of achieving lasting peace.

Even a tiny step would be significant in this conflict. The Palestinians and the Israelis have been fighting each other for decades, and Israel has already invaded Gaza four times. But it will not succeed in its efforts to permanently eliminate Hamas.

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