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Ruthless

10:36 AM, Jan 2, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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It's true that there are very few examples in 20th century history of a bombing campaign that actually broke the morale of a people at war and sapped them of the will to continue the fight. The Battle of Britain did nothing but harden the resolve of the English, and the destruction of German cities didn't stop the German people from fighting on to the end (even if Bomber Harris and Hap Arnold did much to hasten that end). The use of nuclear weapons was effective in the Pacific, but only after horrific fire bombings that did nothing to bring the Japanese to heel. Bombing worked in Serbia, but not in the First Gulf War or Vietnam.

The Middle East has been no different. Wars have been won or lost by boots on the ground, with air power playing a crucial but secondary role in each of Israel's major wars since its independence. In Israel's current fight in Gaza, against a terrorist organization rather than a state actor, air power alone seems even less likely to produce a successful outcome. The great failure of the 2006 war in Lebanon was an overreliance on air power, and in Afghanistan in late 2001, the same problem contributed to the escape of al Qaeda's leadership from Tora Bora. Still, there aren't many instances of air power used to the effect of this report now coming out of Gaza:

An Israeli warplane dropped a 2,000-pound bomb on the home of one of Hamas' top five decision-makers Thursday, instantly killing him and 18 others, while the Israeli army said troops massed on the Gaza border were ready for any order to invade. The airstrike on Nizar Rayan was the first that succeeded in killing a member of Hamas' highest echelon since Israel began its offensive Saturday. The 49-year-old professor of Islamic law was known for personally participating in clashes with Israeli forces and for sending one of his sons on a 2001 suicide mission that killed two Israelis....

Eighteen other people, including all four of Rayan's wives and nine of his 12 children, also were killed, Palestinian health officials said. A man cradled the burned, limp body of a child he pulled from the rubble.

These people willingly send their own children to their deaths simply to make a statement -- to accomplish nothing but the murder of two Israeli civilians and signal their commitment to the fight. The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it's not clear that they are rational, at least not like us. But to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause. Perhaps it will make the leadership of Hamas rethink the wisdom of sparking an open confrontation with Israel under the current conditions. Or maybe not, and the only way to stop Hamas is to eliminate its capacity for violence entirely. Or Israeli leaders can just try to find a diplomatic solution -- as a majority of Democrats apparently favor. It worked so well with the last cease fire.