There is a depressing familiarity to the events unfolding in the Middle East. Israel bombs Hamas' rocket launchers and kills some of its senior leaders, just as it did in 2008-09 and again in 2012. Cease-fires come and go. The number of dead climbs each day, but in a lopsided manner. Israelis huddle in bomb shelters and Gazans take refuge with the United Nations or wherever they can. Israel mulls a ground attack, which would be a significant escalation, even as a truce is discussed.
Why is this happening? Israeli leaders say — as they did in 2008 and 2012 — that they have no choice but to take on Hamas. Would the United States take no action if rockets from Mexico were dropping on Washington or New York or Los Angeles, they ask? Of course not. And why so many civilian deaths? Because Hamas hides itself in residential neighborhoods. Because Hamas rejects reasonable truce offers.
The Palestinians' arguments are also familiar: Israel is using disproportionate force; nine days in, it has killed more than 200 Palestinians, most of them civilians, while only one Israeli has been killed by Hamas. Besides, they say, the assault will ultimately solve nothing because the underlying problem doesn't have to do with the Hamas rockets that are falling, mostly harmlessly, in Israel, but rather with the nearly 50-year-old occupation of Palestinian territory and all that connotes: Israeli security forces and checkpoints in the West Bank, sieges and embargoes in Gaza, restrictions on movement for Palestinians. Hunger. Poverty. Despair.
Both sides' arguments have some merit, but they don't move the situation toward a solution. If events proceed as they have in the past, the assault will continue until civilian deaths become so great that Israel has little choice but to halt in the face of world condemnation. Its public image will continue to deteriorate and Palestinian resentment and hopelessness will grow. Hamas, an Islamic militant group that has been responsible over the years for many terrorist operations and which rejects Israel's right to exist, will re-arm and re-emerge.
It's easy to grow fatigued and cynical about the impasse between Israel and the more moderate Palestinian factions that have committed themselves to a two-state solution. But it's important that the U.S. not disengage, in part because of the continuing tragedies the conflict brings — such as the recent slayings of three Israeli boys, the revenge killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian and the deaths of four Palestinian cousins ages 9 to 11 in an Israeli strike on a Gaza beach Wednesday — and partly because solving the conflict is a critical element in the creation of a stronger, healthier Middle East.
One narrative posits that the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority can't reach a broader peace deal because neither side wants it badly enough. Can that be true? Can it be that the politics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government or the politics of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' standing in opinion polls are blocking the way to a two-state solution?
Many people have by now read the words of Yishai Frenkel, whose nephew was among the slain Israeli boys. After the their deaths and the revenge killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, Frenkel said: "There is no difference between those who murdered Mohammed and those who murdered our children. Those are murderers, and these are murderers. And both must be dealt with to the full extent of the law."
Those are rational, heartfelt, brave words. Where are the Israeli and Palestinian leaders with comparable courage and empathy to end the cycle and bring both the short-term assault and the long-term conflict to an end?
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