The question by now isn't whether the Israelis will be coming, but when. The aerial assault against Gaza has already begun in response to the rain of rockets that have fallen all over Israel these past few weeks, penetrating deeper than ever before. The surest result has been to put this era's Jewish commonwealth on a war footing once again.
How can this be? Wasn't this new unified Palestinian regime in Ramallah, a coalition of Fatah and Hamas, going to be a new, peaceful government led by technocrats, not haters? (Did anybody ever believe that, even those who said it?) But the only technology this "new" Palestinian leadership has seemed determined to practice is firing ever newer and bigger missiles at Israel. Thanks to that country's Iron Dome defense, the missiles haven't caused many if any fatalities, but they have succeeded in mobilizing tens of thousands of Israeli reservists, who are now poised to roll into the Gaza Strip, aka Hamasland, still again.
According to the latest reports, some 20,000 Israeli reservists have already been called up, and a total of 40,000 are due to be. How long can that little country afford to keep that many reservists under arms without striking? The aerial assault has already begun on a large scale as hundreds of sorties prepare the way for the ground troops expected to follow any day, any hour. Hospitals on both sides of the line are girding for the rush of casualties to come.
To what end? Israel's prime minister, who now finds himself a wartime leader, promises that "Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing at Israeli citizens." Benjamin Netanyahu says this "operation will expand and continue until the fire toward our towns stops and quiet returns." Which makes the objective of Israel's latest campaign clear enough, but how achieve it? Questions abound:
Will this be just a partial and temporary occupation of Gaza till Washington and the rest of the world again force Israel to withdraw short of a more permanent end to the rocket fire out of Gaza? It's happened before. Twice. Is the third time supposed to be the charm?
Why should this invasion -- and its outcome -- be different from all the others? To quote one resident of Gaza preparing to take shelter from Israeli bombs once again, "We want ... a truce and peace with them so our children and we can live." Which sounds just like what people on the other side of the divide want, too, but whenever a glimmer of peace is spotted, the violent bear it away. And the old cycle of intermittent peace between regular wars returns.
Short of occupying all of Gaza, or at least establishing a buffer zone, a cordon sanitaire, between Hamas and its supply of rockets via the tunnels out of Egypt, what's to keep the Israelis from having to invade a fourth time, and a fifth, and so regularly on every few years?
So long as there is no end to this fatal cycle of sporadic peace and constant hostilities, and to Hamas' control of Gaza with it, any real peace will remain an idle dream, a brief and temporary pause between bloody wars.
Meanwhile, Gaza begins to bury its dead and Israel girds for the casualty reports sure to come once the land war begins. When will that be? Tomorrow, next day? Next week? Never? The clock is ticking, the coiled spring is about to be sprung, and then the fog of war will descend again. And there will be only one thing certain about this old, old story: It is To Be Continued.
If this air campaign can suppress all that rocket fire out of Gaza, at least for a time, then both sides can issue separate but equal declarations of victory, everybody can go home, and the world breathe a sigh of relief. In war as in showbiz, Give 'em a Happy Ending Every Time!
But if not, then cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war. And after that, who knows? For every battle plan remains operative only until the first contact with the enemy, limited wars have a way of turning unlimited, and this latest war for peace will bring anything but. And once again, to echo the lament of Milton's "Samson Agonistes":
Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves . . .