It’s a sequence that has played out, with minor variations, several times before.

Israel targets a Palestinian terror kingpin, acting on information that he is planning to orchestrate a major attack, but knowing that the act of thwarting him will likely prompt barrages of rockets aimed at towns and villages all over the south.

The rockets indeed start flying, the air force is dispatched again and again to stop the terror cells that are poised to fire still more salvos, and the Gaza death toll mounts.

Not so, mercifully, the toll on the Israeli side. The Gaza terror gangs are certainly trying, firing dozens of rockets. But Israel has alarm systems and protected rooms. It keeps its youngsters home from school. And it has the world’s foremost anti-missile defense systems.

So the numbers tell nothing like the full story. But the numbers – and the Gaza funeral scenes — are flashed around the world as the apparent barometer of proportionality, or rather disproportionality. And Israel finds itself on the defensive, accused of exaggerated use of force, even as it strives to keep its populace safe.

As so often in the past, what’s required to fairly assess the reasons behind the current Israel-Gaza flare-up is a smidgen of intellectual honesty, a glance beyond the headlines and the numbers.

Zuhair al-Qaissi, the leader of Gaza’s Popular Resistance Committees, made no secret of his activities. It was al-Qaissi, immediately after Gilad Shalit was released in an extortionate prisoner “exchange” last October, who gave interviews to the Arabic and international media detailing how his organization had kidnapped the Israeli soldier, interrogated him, resisted Israeli pleas for his release, and handed Shalit over to Hamas for five years of incarceration.

Al-Qaissi was also reportedly the man who oversaw the transfer of funds from Hezbollah in Lebanon to other extremist groups in Gaza.

Given those central roles, when the Israeli security establishment claims, as it did on Friday, that al-Qaissi was one of the planners of last August’s major infiltration by a group of terrorists – from Gaza, via the Sinai, and into Israel – in which eight Israelis were killed north of Eilat, the claim would seem anything but far-fetched. Likewise, when the Israeli leadership further declares, as it did this weekend, that it resorted to a targeted strike on al-Qaissi, with all the repercussions now being felt across southern Israel, because he was about to orchestrate another such major attack.

A glance beyond the headlines and the numbers would provide the reminder that Israel has no military or civilian presence whatsoever in the Gaza Strip – no territorial dispute. Wrenching thousands of civilians from their homes, Israel withdrew entirely from the Strip in 2005. The last Israeli who we knew was living in Gaza was Shalit.

After the 2005 disengagement, the Palestinians could have rehoused Gaza’s refugees – there was no reason not to; the occupation was over – but they preferred to keep that wound open. They could have started building a mini-democracy in Gaza – if only to try to persuade an uncertain Israel that it could safely relinquish territory in the West Bank. But all-too evidently, not even the potential prize of territorial concessions in the West Bank was sufficiently compelling.

Instead, the greenhouses that had flourished in the Gaza settlements and could have flourished under Palestinian control were gleefully smashed, Hamas violently took power in 2007 after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, and the rocket and mortar fire continued almost without interruption. In the period before al-Qaissi was killed, barely a day went by without a rocket salvo being fired into Israel; these attacks didn’t make headlines because they didn’t kill Israelis.

When the IDF’s chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz said on Sunday that “Israel is not interested in escalation for the sake of it” in Gaza, that sounds credible, too. There had been no indication in recent weeks that the IDF was planning a repeat of the winter 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead assault on Hamas. Israel has plainly been focused elsewhere – on Iran’s drive to the bomb, on the uncertainties in Egypt, on Bashar Assad’s daily massacring of his own people in Syria.

Nonetheless, seven years after it left Gaza, Israel is up against a leadership there that has exploited every opportunity to arm itself with only one enemy in mind – Israel – and to improve the capacity of its rockets to harm Israeli civilians. Sooner or later, therefore, Gantz and other Israeli leaders have said in recent months, Israel may have to resort to another ground offensive.

Whether that time is now may depend on Hamas. Will it decide to join the PRC and Islamic Jihad in firing rockets into Israel — and, remember, Hamas has Fajr missiles that can get to Tel Aviv, which would radically change the nature of this flare-up. Or will it stay away from a direct role and instead work toward a ceasefire? As of Sunday evening, the signs were pointing to the latter.

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