MELBOURNE, Australia — Imagine your next-door neighbor — with whom you have had a long and bloody feud — pulling out a gun and shooting into your windows, from his own living room, which is densely packed with women and children. In fact, he’s holding his daughter on his lap as he tries to target your own kids. He claims he will not stop until your family is dead. Police are unavailable. What should you do?

One option is to do nothing, or little. You try this for a while. After all, your neighbor is poor and traumatized, there is a sad and complicated history between you, and you bear some of the blame.

But finally, as one shot hits your child’s bedroom, you decide that enough is enough. You pull out your far superior gun. You attempt a surgical strike: aim at the shooter’s head and try to spare the innocents.

In an abstract sense, this is what Israel is doing right now.

But there is nothing surgical about the blood and agony that have engulfed Gaza in the last week. Try as Israel might to target militants alone, civilian bodies are being pulled from the rubble, because, like our metaphoric gunman’s home, militants and civilians inhabit the same urban space in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza City and Rafah are crowded and poor — and, more than ever before, they double as army camps. Fighters train next to schools, and rockets are stored in the basements of apartment buildings. According to recent reports, Hamas’ senior officials are currently hiding in hospitals. Over a million Palestinians, unable to flee to either Egypt or Israel, have for years been ruled by a military junta that prioritizes the killing of Israelis, across the international border, at all costs.

Of course, civilians have always been in the line of fire and conquest, from Troy to Berlin. But no regime has ever used its citizens so deliberately as tools to arouse world sympathy, as hostages to modern sensitivities. While theories of just war instruct us not to hurt noncombatants, Hamas and its military arm have made a conscious decision, banking on global humanitarian concerns, to ensure that Israel hits as many civilians as possible.

Even if Israel’s current war against Gaza is a just war — which is suggested by its attempts at limited and “measured” retaliation after eight years of Hamas rockets followed its unilateral retreat from Gaza — it is therefore a very dirty war, too. There is a sad zero-sum game between Palestinian suffering and Israeli sovereignty, security, and normal life.

Most Israelis — even those hoping to see, in their lifetime, an independent and prosperous Palestine — agree that the attack on Hamas was necessary. Many others would not like to see the Israeli army launch a ground invasion into Gaza. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rightly allowed convoys of food and medicine into Gaza during the fighting, and Israeli hospitals are treating several injured Gazan citizens.

Not unreasonably, Israel wants an internationally guaranteed and monitored ceasefire agreement that would put a total stop to Hamas assaults against its territory. But, as world opinion awakens from its holiday slumber, it is likely to turn against Israel. After all, Israel is the strong guy, the former occupying power, the better shooter. Its bombardment of Gaza is not “proportional.”

Indeed, there is no symmetry of suffering on the two sides of the border. Gazans are worse off than Israelis in every conceivable way. But does that mean that Israel should let them keep shooting at it? Or should Israel respond “proportionally,” by firing 10 to 80 rockets, indiscriminately aimed against Gazan homes and schools, every day for the next few years?

Israelis have become used to blanket accusations. It is the kind of message that unites the nation, left and right, in grim resolve. What, Israelis ask, would other countries do? Does the enemy’s civilian suffering trump Israel’s sovereignty? Does it trump the real, if less bloody, agony and fear of hundreds of thousands Israelis over long years?

Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni have cast aside their political rivalries in order to orchestrate an answer: Israel must fight off the Gazan rockets.

That said, Israel’s unity may be short-lived. It is a democracy, not a one-voice nation, and, with a general election due in February, debate is continuing both within the government and beyond it. If the Gaza campaign turns Lebanon-like, with a humanitarian catastrophe, ongoing bombardment of Israeli civilians, or both, domestic criticism will echo loud and clear.

But even opponents of Olmert’s second war must face the blunt fact that Hamas is lethal. To the detriment of their own people, its leaders, Haled Mash’al and Ismail Hanieh, want neither peace nor compromise. Like their friend and supporter, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran, they want Israel dead. It is as simple as that.

One ray of hope is that moderate Arab leaders, including Egypt’s foreign minister, have openly blamed Hamas for the current Gazan predicament. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are willing to broker peace, and perhaps save the Palestinians from their own worst leadership. Israel has gone a long way since the Arab world set out to kill it off. For the first time, prominent Arab voices acquit Israel of the wholesale blame that some Western critics still lazily throw at it.

For the time being, Israel should strive for the safest truce it can accomplish, provided that Hamas stops shooting out of its own crowded living room. But, after the election in February, Israel’s next leader must face the moderate Arab challenge. He or she must talk directly to the Arab League, whose proposed peace plan will require tough Israeli negotiation, but is a reasonable start to preventing future wars, including just wars. Give it a chance.

Fania Oz-Salzberger is a professor and chair of modern Israel studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and director of the Posen Research Forum for Political Thought at the Faculty of Law, University of Haifa, Israel. Her books include “Translating the Enlightenment” and “Israelis in Berlin.” © 2009 Project Syndicate

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.