This is a fight Israel did not seek

The current conflict in Gaza was not of Israel’s choosing. Israelis, like all civilized humans, are shocked and saddened by the loss of innocent life and the destruction of war. While Israel had done everything possible to avoid large-scale armed confrontation, the immediate and lethal threat to the lives of its civilian population left the government with no choice but to defend its citizens.

Hamas, the radical Sunni terrorist organization that took control of Gaza almost a decade ago, was determined to create a humanitarian crisis. In a calculated manner, it methodically escalated the situation until it brought upon Gaza the destruction we are witnessing today.

Why would Hamas do such a thing to its own people? Because it feared that without a crisis, it would become irrelevant. In recent years, Hamas’ power has steadily declined.

First, its pro-al-Qaida, anti-Assad stance caused a rift with its main patrons in Tehran. Then, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt led to the loss of Hamas’ main source of income — the massive smuggling operation through the Gaza-Sinai border, which it controlled and skimmed for immense profits.

With no funding, the bloated Hamas public payroll collapsed under its own weight leaving cronies and supporters without pay for months. Hamas leaders therefore made a cynical calculation. If they could succeed in focusing world attention on an urgent humanitarian plight it would create for the Gaza population, it would again be relevant, receiving political and ideological support from the outraged Arab street, and controlling (and pocketing) the outpouring of millions of dollars of sympathy funding gained at the expense of a tormented population.

The key to the success of this dreadful Hamas plan therefore lies in the wholesale manufacture of civilian casualties. The more deaths Hamas could cause, the more successful their plan would be.

It’s called the “dead baby” tactic and here’s how it works: Hamas carries out outrageous attacks against Israel’s civilian population. In turn, Israel must — like any responsible government — protect its citizens by trying to remove the threat. Hamas, in turn, hides behind its civilian population, hoping that these innocent human shields will bear the brunt of Israel’s effort to defend itself. Last, the inevitable civilian casualties would be spun from outrage and sympathy into renewed political power for Hamas.

Recognizing this diabolical Hamas strategy, yet maintaining its moral standards, Israel has endeavored to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza as much as humanly possible — while still effectively countering Hamas attempts to murder Israeli citizens. To this end, Israel has done what no nation has ever done in order to protect civilians — on both sides:

• Israel has invested its resources into building shelters for its population — while Hamas has invested all of its resources into building bunkers for its leaders and tunnels for its terrorists.

• Israel has kept its civilians out of harm’s way, sending its soldiers forward to act as a shield between them and the enemy — while Hamas has fired from mosques, stored weapons in U.N. schoolyards, and established headquarters under hospitals and inside homes.

• Israel has readily agreed to every ceasefire proposal, hoping to avoid further bloodshed — while Hamas has so far cynically violated all ceasefire arrangements.

• Israel has used its know-how to develop, with the United States, anti-rocket missiles to protect its population — while Hamas has used its know-how to manufacture blind rockets useful only for firing into large civilian targets such as cities.

• Israel has expended vast efforts to warn every civilian in Gaza in a target area to evacuate in order to avoid injury, with telephone calls, text messages, leaflets and warning shots — while Hamas has instructed its population to disregard Israeli warnings and remain in target zones to protect Hamas military assets with their lives.

In short, Israel has employed its arsenal to protect civilians, while Hamas has employed its civilians to protect its arsenal.

The population of Gaza is not Israel’s enemy, and it is Israel’s fervent hope that the current efforts to establish a ceasefire will be successful. Moreover, throughout this tragic ordeal, Israel has not lost sight of its ultimate goal, that of living in peace with its neighbors.

Yet, if we ever want to achieve this goal, Hamas must be disarmed, and must be distanced from any leadership role among the Palestinians. To this end, the recent ill-advised PLO-Hamas “Unity” agreement must be relegated to the dustbin of history.

When calm returns, and it comes time to get back to peacemaking, our neighbors will find us both forgiving and morally strong.

The late Prime Minister Golda Meir put it best when she said: “We can forgive them for killing our children, but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill theirs.”

Chaim Shacham is consul general of Israel to Florida and Puerto Rico.