Lower death toll is key difference between Israel’s two Gaza operations


McClatchy Newspapers

Less than a mile from the Gaza border, Israeli reserve officer David Mozer sits with his soldiers and waits for news of impending war.

For Mozer, there’s a feeling of deja vu. Almost exactly four years ago, he was sitting near the exact same spot when he received orders to enter the Gaza Strip with his unit.

“This feels the same, but it’s not. Actually, everything is different,” he said. “This time around Israel has fewer friends and Gaza has more.”

Across Israel and the Gaza Strip, the sudden escalation of violence and the announcement of a military operation in Gaza has brought back painful memories of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s punishing offensive into Gaza four years ago that left more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

But for those who have both fought and come under fire, there is really no comparison.

Four years ago, Abu Mahmoud was a fledgling fighter aspiring to learn the ins and outs of Hamas’ rocket squads. Then came Operation Cast Lead. Abu Mahmoud’s sister and uncle were among those killed.

“It changed everything. It changed us all,” he said.

Abu Mahmoud, who asked that he be quoted by a pseudonym because of the sensitivity of the situation, said he withdrew from his “political” activities and started working with a friend in Gaza City. Today, he’s married, and as Israeli airstrikes hit sites across Gaza, he worries for his wife and young daughter.

“When the first bomb hit I thought this horrible thing, I thought again we were in Cast Lead. But thank God, this is not the same,” he said.

Israel’s airstrikes across Gaza are still terrifying, he added, but he can’t help but notice that the civilian death toll – for now – is much lower.

On the first day of Cast Lead, more than 230 Palestinians, many of them police cadets, were killed in airstrikes across Gaza. On Monday, the sixth day since Israel began Operation Pillar of Defense, Palestinian medics estimate that just over 100 people have been killed.

Publicly, Israeli military officials attribute the lower death toll to “better intelligence” and to the Israeli air force’s use of new precision bombs that have a smaller blast radius. But privately, they say that decision makers have ordered a more cautious approach and that the air force doesn’t have the same carte blanche it had in Cast Lead.

“The environment is very different,” said one Israeli diplomat in Jerusalem, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. “The relationship between Israel and the international community is not as forgiving.”

During Cast Lead, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was a darling of the international community, in part because his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, had promoted a platform of peace with the Palestinians. U.S. President Barack Obama had just been elected when Israel started Cast Lead, and the American and Israeli administrations enjoyed particularly strong ties. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a notoriously troubled relationship with Obama, and with European leaders, in part because of his government’s support of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“If something goes badly, if Israel has another incident which causes international outrage, they have fewer friends in Washington to back them,” the official said.

The Hamas government in Gaza, meanwhile, is enjoying a diplomatic renaissance, thanks to the Arab Spring revolts. Earlier this month, Qatar and Bahrain became the first countries to send diplomatic envoys to the Gaza Strip.

Hamas also has enjoyed the support of Egypt, which opened its Rafah crossing with Gaza as the Israeli bombing campaign began, in contrast to what happened during Cast Lead, when the Egyptian government closed its border with Gaza. The new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, loudly condemned Israel’s actions.

“Hamas is no longer cut off,” said Amos Harel, defense correspondent for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper. “And Israel can’t count on its borders.”

Now, there appears to be progress in talks aimed at imposing a cease-fire on the two sides. That is also a difference. Israel’s unilateral declaration of a cease-fire during Operation Cast Lead didn’t come until 21 days into the campaign.

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf

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