Israel's war in Gaza has been met with cries of protest around the world. They come from two sources.
First, there are those who oppose any Israeli effort to defend itself, mainly because they don't believe a Jewish state should exist at all. This is a form of anti-Semitism, and such a view should be rejected outright rather than argued with.
Second, there are those who support Israel's existence, but believe it is wrong to wage so harsh an assault on the Gaza Strip. This argument also takes two forms: First, that Israel's response is disproportionate and therefore wrong; and second, that there are less violent ways to handle Hamas -- through international pressure, sanctions or negotiations.
Both of these claims, as logical as they may sound, ignore the lessons of history, including Israel's recent history in fighting terror. In the 10 years I served as a minister in Israel's security cabinet, I learned just how mistaken such arguments can be.
On June 1, 2001, a suicide bomber attacked the entrance to the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv. Twenty-one Israelis, mostly young people, were killed, and more than 130 injured. This was the latest in a long string of suicide bombings that had been launched since the start of the Second Intifada in September 2000.
The next day, I took part in a dramatic cabinet meeting to discuss our options -- a Sabbath-day meeting, which only a true emergency could justify. Most of the ministers felt decisive action had to be taken. Military officials presented a plan for uprooting the terror infrastructure, through a complex campaign in the heart of Palestinian cities and refugee camps. Though the attack had been carried out by Hamas, it was clear that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had given them a green light. We had both the right and the ability to strike back.
Throughout the meeting, though, our foreign minister kept going in and out of the room, talking to world leaders and reporting back. His message was clear: Right now Israel enjoys the sympathy of the international community. As long as we keep our military response to a minimum, the world will continue to be on our side, and increased diplomatic pressure will rein in the terror. But if we launch a full-scale attack on the terrorists, we risk losing the world's support and turning Arafat from an aggressor into a victim.
Eventually the prime minister was convinced of this approach, and the decision was made to stick to a proportionate response -- pinpoint attacks on terror cells, special operations, arrests -- and to allow diplomacy to work its magic.
Over the next nine months, Israel held its fire, and the world indeed condemned terrorism. But the attacks only increased. In the heart of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, suicide bombers blew up coffee shops, buses and hotels. Nightlife ground to a halt, tourism was decimated and hotels had to release most of their workers. One of my colleagues in the government, Rehavam Zeevi, was gunned down by terrorists. In the meantime, the U.S. suffered its own terror attacks on Sept. 11 and put intense pressure on us not to retaliate against the Palestinians, for fear of complicating its own war on al-Qaeda.
The situation came to a head in March 2002, when more than 130 Israelis were killed in a single month alone -- most infamously on March 27, Passover Eve, at the Park Hotel in Netanya. The next day, the cabinet convened -- again, in an extraordinary meeting during a religious holiday. The meeting started at 6 p.m. and lasted the night. This time, however, the government decided to launch Operation Defensive Shield -- the same plan the Israel Defense Forces had offered the previous year.
In the international arena, our worst fears were realized. The United Nations condemned us, and the U.S. dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to tell us to stop the assault immediately. The global media mounted a brutal campaign depicting us as war criminals, spreading false rumors of the wholesale butchering of Palestinian civilians, describing the operation as the worst atrocity of modern history.
The most outrageous of these rumors was the Jenin libel, which was portrayed in a film produced largely from the fertile imagination of its director, and then shown around the world. It didn't matter that, in fact, Israel had taken unprecedented measures to minimize civilian casualties, including refraining from using either aerial or artillery bombardment, putting its own soldiers at unprecedented risk; or that the UN commission that was created to investigate Jenin was soon disbanded for lack of evidence; or that the director of the film admitted that he had misled his audience.
For years to come, the "Jenin massacre" was the centerpiece of the anti-Israel propaganda machine, reverberating across Europe and on U.S. campuses as the symbol of Israeli iniquity. Our reputation was in tatters.
Yet all this was a small price to pay for what Israel gained. Within a few weeks, Palestinian terror was rendered ineffective, with the number of Israelis killed falling from hundreds per month to fewer than a dozen over the next year. Life returned to Israeli streets. Tourists returned by the hundreds of thousands. The economy started moving again.
No less important, though, was the effect Defensive Shield had on the Palestinians themselves. With the terror infrastructure removed, Palestinians could begin rebuilding their civic institutions and changing their attitude toward violence. Over time, Arafat's policy of promoting terror was replaced by the far more cautious approach of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.
In more than six years since the operation, the West Bank's economy has boomed. If there is hope in the West Bank today, it is because Israel abandoned the ideas of proportionality and diplomacy in handling terror. The West Bank Palestinians know this; for this reason, they have not joined in the world's rampant condemnation of Israel in the current war. While tens of thousands protest in Europe, West Bankers are mostly silent.
Understanding the war in Gaza means recognizing the lessons of 2002. During the three years that passed after pulling out all troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel chose to respond to Hamas's deadly, daily rocket attacks with proportionality and diplomacy. The result? More rockets, more missiles, more misery for Palestinians -- and enough breathing space for Hamas to take over the Gaza Strip, devastate its society, build a much more powerful arsenal than it had in 2005 and become the vanguard of Iranian expansionism in the region.
Terrorism is a cancer that can't be cured through "proportional" treatments. It requires invasive surgery. It threatens not only democratic states that are its target, but also -- foremost -- the local civilians who are forced into its fanatical ranks, deployed as human shields, and devastated by its tyranny.
The longer one waits to treat it, the worse it gets, and the harsher the treatment required to defeat it. In southern Lebanon, where Israel failed to defeat the terrorists in 2006, the disease has only spread: Hezbollah now has three times the missiles it had before, and the terrorists have gained a stranglehold on the Lebanese government. Israel is determined not to repeat this mistake in Gaza.
Just as in 2002, Israel has chosen to fight the heart of terror, in the face of worldwide denunciation, mass demonstrations, UN resolutions, and talk of crimes against humanity. Now, as then, it is the right decision.
The operation is painful: The number of civilians hurt and killed, while far fewer than in comparable operations around the world, is still intolerably high -- a reflection of the size and depth of the terror infrastructure that has grown there over the last three years.
As in 2002, the real beneficiaries of a successful Israeli campaign will be the Palestinians themselves. Peace can be found only when Palestinians are given the freedom to build real civic institutions, and a leadership can emerge unafraid of telling its own citizens that violence, fanaticism and martyrdom aren't the Palestinian way. But this can happen only once the malignancy of terror is removed from their midst. As ugly as it sounds, it is the only source of hope for Gaza.
Natan Sharansky is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Shalem Center, a former deputy prime minister and the author of the recently published "Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy." He wrote this column for Bloomberg News.