I am deeply troubled by what's happened in Gaza since Israel launched its invasion the last week of December, 2008. Obviously, this is a very complex issue which is a touchy subject for a lot of people, so I will tread lightly.
Any sovereign nation has the right and indeed, the obligation, to protect itself from external security threats. The rocket attacks by Hamas and related groups clearly warrants a response of some kind, as Israeli civilians are under duress. I don't think anyone will argue that Israel did not have the right to respond. However, the nature of the response is what is most troublesome, particularly because of the proportionality of the response. The dust has settled due to the cease-fire and accurate casualty figures are still elusive; most media outlets report the number of Palestinian deaths to be anywhere from 900-1300, with roughly a third being children. (BBC News, "Counting Casualties of Gaza's War," 1/28/09)
Israeli casualties, both civilian and military, number less than two-dozen. International law dictates that an armed conflict must be both proportional and show distinction. That is, the punishment must fit the crime and the combatants must distinguish between civilians and non-combatants and the enemy's armed forces. With respect to Gaza, a densely-populated area where civilians have little opportunity to escape the conflict due to its closed borders, civilian casualties become inevitable.
Unfortunately, despite all of these circumstances, it is hard to argue that Israel showed much discretion in its attacks. The most-publicized incident is where Israeli forces shelled UN school sheltering civilians, resulting the death of approximately 40 civilians. Israel has claimed that they were being fired upon by Hamas mortars next to the school and they responded. Now, how does it make sense to launch an artillery barrage into the front yard of a UN school (of which Israel was quite aware) to kill three or four attackers who undoubtedly have terrible aim in the first place?! This defies international convention because it is unacceptable to kill 40 civilians in an attempt to kill three combatants.
This incident is not surprising considering Israel's general urban warfare strategy used in Gaza, which went something like this: whenever Israeli forces moved into a neighborhood, they would first shell it with artillery and roll in their tanks, firing at pretty much everything. They obviously KNEW there were far more civilians in these areas than there were Hamas combatants, yet still chose this method of assault. Now, I am not an expert on any of this stuff, but when ONE attack on a mortar unit results in more civilian deaths than the entirety of Israeli deaths for the duration of the conflict, something is definitely wrong here. I suppose that is why the international community has largely condemned Israel's actions. Indeed, just this past weekend, Israel's PM stated that Israel would respond "disproportionally" to the rocket attacks launched since the cease-fire. I'm going to go out on a limb here, but isn't that basically giving the Geneva convention a giant middle finger?
Lastly, I want to talk about how this affects US foreign policy. In the eyes of the world, we are intimately associated with Israel because we are its primary (and sometimes only) supporter. When the primary security challenge to our country is Islamic extremism, Israel's actions set back our own foreign policy objectives; how far back and to what extent remains to be seen. Fortunately, President Obama will seek to return to US to the role of "honest broker," with the hope of regaining credibility among Arab nations and the world in general. The Bush administration often sought absolutist positions which were largely counter-productive. Hopefully this administration will handle the Middle East region with some sensibility and respect for its people, with an understanding that blind support of Israel is counter-productive.
I would like to close by saying that I, without question, support the right of Israel to exist. However, I also believe the Palestinian people deserve their own state as well and I genuinely believe it's in everyone's best interest to seek a two-state solution. Hopefully a solution like this will emerge sooner rather than later.