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  1. Opinion

Israel aims to protect civilians, both its own and Gazans

In recent months, Israel's civilian population has been subject to increasingly brutal artillery barrages from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The latest round began Nov. 10 with the launching of more than 120 rockets into Israel's southern communities. To counter this ongoing bombardment, a week ago Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense.

The purpose of Israel's action in Gaza is well defined: the removal of a clear and present threat to Israel's civilian population. The operation, therefore, has four goals: to severely impair the command and control of the Hamas leadership; to reduce the capability of Hamas' long- and short-range rocket forces; to re-establish Israel's deterrence against Hamas attack; and most important, to protect the lives of Israeli citizens.

In pursuit of these goals, Israel began the operation with a targeted strike against Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas' Gaza military wing. Jabari was directly responsible for executing the most horrific terror attacks against the state of Israel in the past decade. He was also directly involved in the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. Since that strike, a number of other senior Hamas commanders have also been targeted.

At the beginning of the operation, Israel mostly destroyed the array of long-range "Fajr" rockets smuggled into Gaza from Iran, in order to reduce Hamas' capability of launching missiles as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Further Israeli strikes were also carried out against other Hamas military assets, in particular rocket-launching sites, ammunition stores and weapons workshops.

Over more than a decade, Israel has shown great restraint in the face of Hamas' ongoing artillery barrages. Since the first rocket was fired by Hamas in 2001, about 13,000 have landed in Israel — an average of more than three missiles a day, over 11 years. Despite Israel's 2005 disengagement from Gaza, and the removal of all its military bases and civilian communities, Hamas continues to attack Israel — demonstrating that its cause was not merely Israel's presence in Gaza, but rather Israel's very existence.

Since the beginning of 2012 till the beginning of the present operation, more than 800 separate rockets have been launched at Israel's southern communities — a grave increase over previous years. In addition, advanced weapons smuggled from Libya, Iran and Sudan and the infiltration of other Jihadist elements have recently turned Gaza into a regional base of radical Islamic terrorism.

Civilians, both Israeli and Gazan, are the real victims of Hamas attacks. Hamas deliberately aim its missiles at Israeli civilians, while cynically manufacturing, storing and launching them near Gaza schools and mosques, using their own civilians as human shields. This constitutes a double war crime.

By contrast, Israel is seeking not to worsen the situation for civilians, but quite the opposite. It wishes to re-establish calm, and is taking great care to avoid casualties among Gaza civilians while protecting its own.

Tens of thousands of leaflets have been dropped, phone calls placed and text messages sent warning Gazans to avoid Hamas areas. Israel has broken into the Hamas radio station in order to broadcast safety instructions to civilians. The flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza continues — more than 125 aid trucks enter Gaza daily. All Israeli strikes are carried out with utmost care taken to avoid civilians, through the use of up-to-date intelligence, precision-guided weapons, surgical execution and even aborting missions in mid trajectory in questionable situations. Sadly, losses have been sustained among Gaza civilians, and this Israel deeply regrets. It must be recalled, however, that Israel did not choose to have its citizens bombarded by Hamas, and has no choice but to act in their defense.

Israel is prepared to expand the operation if Hamas' behavior makes it absolutely necessary. If the fire from Gaza stops, Israel will have no need to continue its operation. However, if Hamas insists on rocketing Israel's cities, Israel will do what it must in order to protect its citizens.

One cannot imagine hundreds of unprovoked missiles raining down on Florida from a hostile neighbor. Yet in Israel, this is a daily reality. Israel has responded with great restraint but cannot and will not accept the constant firing of rockets and mortars on its civilian population. No country in the world would acquiesce to its citizens being under constant artillery barrage. Israel is acting in self-defense and out of its right and duty to protect its citizens from harm.

Chaim Shacham is consul general of Israel to Florida and Puerto Rico. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.