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.
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.
Better Civilian Casualties than Dead Soldiers
Nevertheless, the soil of Gaza has not turned into fire beneath the feet of Israeli soldiers, as Hamas's propagandists had threatened. On the contrary, Fortress Gaza was subdued within 48 hours, the Hamas infrastructure was weakened, its weapons supply system was temporarily interrupted and more than 150 prisoners were taken.
Rocket fire has subsided with each passing day. At first, Hamas fighters were launching more than 70 rockets a day, a number that has now dropped to about 30. Since the beginning of the war, more than 600 missiles have been fired at Israel, even though Hamas, according to Israeli estimates, had the capacity to launch 200 to 300 rockets a day. The second front that some feared would erupt -- in the West Bank, in southern Lebanon or in Israel's Arab cities -- has failed to materialize.
Nevertheless, the Israelis have made some tragic mistakes. In the first phase, the air war, their fighter pilots worked their way down a list of almost 500 targets. Though the attacks were not as surgically precise as the generals like to claim, the resulting destruction was at least somewhat targeted. The chaotic destruction began with the ground offensive, when civilians were all too often struck by bullets and projectiles from Israeli tanks.
The Israeli strategy in this unequal war is to strike Hamas with full force, so as to avoid losses of its own and maintain public support. One of the horrific lessons the Israelis learned from the Lebanon war two years ago was that civilian casualties are preferable to dead soldiers. "We will pay the international price for the collateral damage and the expected civilian casualties later on," writes Alex Fischmann, a military expert with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
And so the Gaza Strip is being razed to the ground. The bombardments from land, sea and the air have not only destroyed the Hamas infrastructure, but also civilian targets in which witnesses say there were no Hamas fighters. Israeli missiles struck ambulances and mobile clinics, currency exchange offices, a printing company, the main vegetable market, an orphanage and the American private school.
Two families died in mortar attacks, four people at a funeral and a number of others in a shopping center. In northern Gaza, occupied by the Israeli army, four starving children sat next to their dead mother and at least 11 other bodies for three days. Injured civilians bled to death in other houses because the soldiers refused to allow paramedics to evacuate them.
Yasser al-Shrafi is one of the few to have escaped the misery of Gaza. German diplomats convinced the Israelis to issue an exit visa for the 32-year-old Palestinian-born German citizen, who owns a pharmacy in Berlin's Spandau neighborhood. "The streets smell of death," says Shrafi.
His family held out for two days in their house in the Jabaliya refugee camp, before fleeing to the house of Shrafi's brother in Gaza City. They barely escaped with their lives when the Israeli Air Force bombed a nearby police station. Two of Shrafi's cousins died in subsequent attacks. "This is not a war," he says. "It's a bloodbath."
'We Thought It Would Be a Safe Place'
The turning point in this operation came last Tuesday at 3:45 p.m. local time. An Israeli mortar shell landed near the entrance of a school in Jabaliya operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), followed by a second one half a minute later. Both shells landed in the middle of a crowd of people. Groups of families, believing that they were safe here, were in the process of unloading cars and donkey carts. About 40 people died and 55 were injured, some seriously. Israeli Foreign Minister Livni claims that the shells landed next to the school, causing a wall to collapse.
Tens of thousands of people are fleeing the violence in the Gaza Strip. About 500 had sought shelter on the school grounds, including the family of Abu Naser. After hearing a radio announcement by the UN that it planned to open 23 schools for refugees, Abu Naser's family left their house in Beit Lahia. The 30 family members, including children, women and old men, walked for an hour until they reached the al-Fakhura school, which was flying a blue-and-white UN flag. "Now we are safe," said Mohammed, the 22-year-old son. The mortar shells detonated a few minutes later.
An Israeli army spokeswoman later said that Hamas had fired mortars from the school grounds (a later version had the mortar fire coming from near the school) and the army had merely responded in self-defense.
Somia al-Araani, 28, one of the civilians who had sought shelter at the school, says: "If there had been Hamas fighters there, we would not have gone there." She and her children had fled to her sister's house next to the school. "We thought it would be a safe place," she says. Her two sons, Abd al-Rahman and Hotheifa, lie next to each other, wrapped in bandages like small mummies, on beds at Shifa Hospital. The mother sits between the two boys, holding their hands.
John Ging is usually a reserved man, but after the head of the UN's Gaza relief operations had visited the injured at Shifa Hospital, he was seething with rage. He said he was "shocked" by "the brutality of the injuries." Ging calls the Israeli claim that Hamas fighters were firing rockets from the grounds "completely untrue." After speaking with employees and survivors, he said that: "I was reassured by the management of the school, my own staff, senior, experienced, long-serving staff, that there were no militants in the school."
The shift in the public mood was also triggered by the callousness with which the Israeli government has dismissed the Palestinians' desperate situation. "The humanitarian situation is exactly the way it should be," said Foreign Minister Livni.
At that time, the wounded were dying because doctors could not attend to them quickly enough. People were waiting in long lines for bread. One-third of the population has no water at all anymore, and almost no one has electricity. Hospitals rely on generators around the clock, and if one of them breaks down it cannot be repaired, because Israel has prevented spare parts from getting into the country for the past two years. Gasoline is also becoming scarce.
Paying a High Price
In Shifa Hospital, the largest in the Gaza Strip, the beds are lined up tightly next to each other, a cold wind enters the building through broken windows and the floors are sticky with blood. Eric Fosse is a blond, stocky Norwegian who wears a white lab coat over his green surgeon's uniform. He has already performed a dozen emergency operations. He and his colleagues have spent the entire night amputating hands and feet and removing shrapnel. "We operated everywhere," he says, "in seven operating rooms at the same time, even in the hallways."
Fosse normally works as a professor at the University of Oslo. A heart surgeon, over the last 30 years he has repeatedly volunteered during crises and wars in the Middle East, most recently in Lebanon in 2006.
Naturally the Norwegian doctor is not an entirely neutral bystander. His views are shaped by the horribly injured Palestinians he sees in his operating room all day long. It is not surprising that someone like Fosse would have little sympathy for Israel's position in this war. "Civilians pay a high price in any war," says Fosse. "But Gaza is so densely populated, and the people cannot flee. That's why it is so much worse here than in other wars."
In recent days, people like Fosse and UNRWA director Ging have been key witnesses in reporting what is really happening on the ground. Normally the international press would fulfill that role, but the Israelis have refused to allow reporters, both Israeli and foreign, into Gaza. According to an army spokeswoman, journalists could harm the image of the Israeli soldiers. As a result, a democracy is waging a war while standing in the way of those who could investigate and report on the events on the ground.
Too many civilians are dying in Gaza. Their deaths have become an integral part of this war. Meanwhile, the government in Jerusalem is periodically changing its supposed objectives, from the destruction or weakening of Hamas, to changing the "security-related reality" in Gaza, ending the rocket attacks or stopping smuggling across the border with Egypt.
The Real Winners of the Gaza Conflict
The war is chaotic because it is asymmetrical. Hamas is not a recognized government, nor is the Gaza Strip a recognized state against which the state of Israel can wage a war. The Gaza Strip is a no-man's land of international relations, wedged between Egypt and Israel, under a blockade for the past three-and-a-half years and barely provided for by the UN. These are among the reasons why the coastal strip developed into a breeding ground for terrorists.
Hamas has fired more than 10,000 rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip in recent years. Most are projectiles known as Qassam rockets, many of which are welded together in backyard workshops in Gaza. The rockets, which cannot be guided, have killed 32 people in Israel since 2001. The attacks are worthless militarily, but they spread sheer terror. No other country in the world would accept similar treatment, especially not over many years, as the Israelis have.
Nevertheless, the war could also benefit Al-Qaida. In a 10-minute audio tape released last Tuesday, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command in Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, called for bloody revenge. In the second part of his address, Zawahiri appealed to his fellow Egyptians to topple President Mubarak. Mubarak has been surprising open to assuming the role of peace broker, and as a result has made many enemies in the Islamic world.
But the real winner of the war in Gaza could be Iran, once again. With Israel facing sharp criticism from the global public and the United States transitioning from one president to the next, this could not be a better time for the mullahs and their nuclear program. According to Mustafa Alani, a researcher with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, the leadership in Tehran benefits from an upsurge in extremism.
The ease with which Iran has managed to bridge the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as Tehran's pragmatic approach to supplying the Shiite Hezbollah with weapons and the Sunni Hamas with funds, is deeply disconcerting to statesmen like Egypt's Mubarak, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and the rulers of the Gulf states.
For many reasons, it was imperative for the West to react quickly. But its envoys and politicians are trying to make their way through a diplomatic minefield. The Israeli government refuses to negotiate with Hamas, fearing that such negotiation would lend legitimacy to the organization. Hamas only represents the Palestinians in Gaza. The Fatah movement, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is in power in the West Bank. The two organizations are hostile to each other, and Hamas probably took advantage of the war to shoot Fatah supporters in Gaza. Even the Hamas leadership appears to be divided, with moderates arguing for negotiation and radicals interested in nothing but shooting Israelis.
Powerful players also have their hands in the game. Iran funds Hamas to strike at Israel. Israel attacks Hamas, partly to deter Hezbollah in the north. Egypt wants to seal Hamas into the Gaza Strip to prevent it from cooperating even more closely with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
Various parties ventured into the fray last week. A delegation of several Arab foreign ministers went to New York to press the UN to pass a resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire. Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, was permitted to deliver a speech to the plenary session. The Libyans had presented their proposal on the preceding weekend. Many unusual middlemen had become involved.
Presidents Sarkozy and Mubarak were the fastest and the most thorough of the group, and most have now gathered behind their plan. Its key points include a cease-fire agreement under which Hamas would agree to completely stop firing rockets at Israel. In return, Israel could open up the borders to Gaza, both in the north and the south. At the same time, steps would have to be taken to ensure that the Palestinians are unable to smuggle new weapons into the territory.
Two Israeli envoys flew to Egypt last week to discuss the plan with Mubarak's intelligence chief. Hamas representatives were also there -- but didn't meet the Israelis directly, of course. For the Israelis, the plan is a beginning, just as it is for moderate members of Hamas.
Only the United States, the key power in the Middle East, kept itself largely out of the fray. In the final days of his administration, President George W. Bush no longer has the latitude to act freely, and President-elect Barack Obama cannot act until after his inauguration. But the next president has already promised to become "effectively and consistently" involved in the peace process, and says that he will have "plenty to say" about it after he takes office on Jan. 20. His designated secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has already chosen the experienced personnel with which she expects to guarantee America's comeback in the Middle East.
But Obama's course cannot be simply another attempt, using diplomatic means, to force Israel and its neighbors to sign peace treaties. Even though their choices of political tools could not have been more dissimilar -- Bill Clinton, the man of diplomacy, versus Bush, the man of war in Iraq -- both of Obama's predecessors subscribed to an illusion. They believed that they could change the entire region to their advantage, shaping it according to America's will and ideas.
Many of Clinton's Middle East experts will also be working for Obama, and most have become more able over the years. They recommend exercising modesty, and they recommend a Middle East policy that, as Clinton's former Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk puts it, is "less naïve."
Lifelines for Hamas
American specialists are already working behind the scenes to try to resolve one of the main problems in the conflict. Early last year, two experts from Washington traveled to the so-called Philadelphi corridor, the 14-kilometer (9-mile) border between Gaza and Egypt.
Near Rafah, they saw something that sparked much concern among the Israelis. An army of Palestinians was building new tunnels every week beneath the closed border. Many are large enough to serve as conduits for livestock, equipment and weapons. The tunnels are lifelines for Hamas, which uses them to replenish its arms supplies. They also provide a source of income for its fighters, who charge fees on the private movement of goods.
Many of the tunnel openings were concealed in houses, but some were relatively open, covered only by plastic tents -- until last week, when the Israelis bombarded the underground network. Of course, such tunnels can be quickly excavated again.
There are three ways to prevent this from happening, the two American experts wrote in their report. First, the Israelis could dig and flood a large channel to the Mediterranean along the border. Second, they could drive stakes deep into the ground -- although the tunnel builders are already digging at depths of more than 10 meters (33 feet) below the ground.
A third possibility would be for the US Army Corps of Engineers to build an electronic system for the Egyptians that would detect every movement beneath the earth. Around a dozen of the Corp's personnel, dressed as civilians, are already in Egypt for precisely that purpose.
But how is the border at Rafah to be controlled in the future if it is opened up? German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier sent his Middle East envoy Andreas Michaelis to the region last week. Michaelis traveled to Cairo via Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman. After arriving in Cairo, he developed a model with which the Germans could help the Egyptians stop the flow of smugglers in rural areas, which involves the Germans providing advice, training and equipment. On Friday evening, Steinmeier left for the Middle East to personally submit the proposal to the Egyptians.
But the proposal does not specify who would monitor the border itself. The Egyptians are lukewarm about the job. UN peacekeepers are an option. The Turks, among others, have offered to take on the role. The official Palestinian government -- in other words, Fatah -- could and wants to be involved, so that Gaza is not guarded merely by outside troops. But for that -- or any serious plan -- to happen, the conflict between Fatah and Hamas would have to be resolved.
An idea is taking shape among Arab diplomats in the Gulf states to resolve the problem, inspired by the example of South Africa and Nelson Mandela.
Marwan Barghouti has been in an Israeli prison for six years. Both sides have enough faith in the ability of Barghouti, who was once seen as a likely successor to Yasser Arafat but later became a critic of the Palestinian leader, to help the Palestinians move away from the fatal split between Hamas and Fatah.
In 2004, an Israeli court convicted Barghouti, one of the leaders of the pro-Fatah Tanzim militia, of murdering civilians and sentenced him to five consecutive life terms and 40 years' imprisonment. But Barghouti is considered the last common hero for the whole Palestinian nation. He had a falling-out with Fatah's old guard because he considered them to be corrupt. And unlike other Fatah members, who fundamentally reject Hamas, he and a group of his supporters wrote a national reconciliation document which is seen as the foundation for a future government. Barghouti, say Arab diplomats in the Gulf, is the only Fatah member believed capable of including Hamas in a Palestinian peace.
The moderate Arab countries, Israel and the United States still support Palestinian President Abbas, but experts see this as a waste of time, noting that Abbas is too old, too weak and too deeply at odds with Hamas. Hence, they say, it is only a matter of time before Israel finally does what President Shimon Peres has already announced he plans to do, namely to pardon Barghouti when the time is right.
Perhaps that time has now come, or perhaps this is merely another useless mental exercise, another illusion in the history of the Middle East, a history rich in disillusionment. At any rate, the war in Gaza must first come to an end before even more people die and even more hatred is fueled, which will only generate more violence.
RALF BESTE, CLEMENS HÖGES, HANS HOYNG, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, BRITTA SANDBERG, CHRISTOPH SCHULT, BERNHARD ZAND