Why Hamas can't let go

ALAN KAUFMAN is the author of "Matches."

NEARLY 10 months after Israel withdrew every last soldier, settler, nail and bucket from Gaza, the Hamas-led Palestinians can't seem to let go.

There is something psychologically profound about Hamas abducting to Gaza and holding hostage an Israeli soldier, 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit. You would think that the very last thing the Palestinians would want to import to Gaza is precisely the emblem of their former occupation: a soldier.

And yet, on a psychological plane, this seemingly senseless political act may be symbolically important. Perhaps without the soldier in their midst, the Palestinians in and of themselves feel no existential purpose. Perhaps they have no way to establish their own sense of destiny without the perpetual agony of conflict with Israel.

Hamas literally needs an occupier-enemy, just as released convicts who can't seem to make it on the outside intentionally commit crimes in order to be returned to prison, where they feel safer and better understand the rules.

How else to explain the barrage of Kassam rockets from Gaza at Israel's populated areas even after Israel has evacuated the Palestinians' land? How else to fathom the pointless murder of a West Bank settler, 18-year-old Eliyahu Asheri, killed almost immediately following his abduction? Each rocket, each murder, is a painful tap on Israel's shoulder from a frustrated former marriage partner who cannot let go and is threatening homicide. I'm still here, proclaims each explosion. Take me back, each murder demands.

Unfortunately, Israel cannot take out a restraining order against Hamas.

To some Americans, Israel's unfolding military strike on the Gaza Strip in response to Shalit's kidnapping may seem like an overreaction, no less irrational than the behavior of the other side. After all, Americans may think, it's just one soldier. Four and sometimes eight times as many U.S. soldiers die in Iraq and Afghanistan each day, their deaths hardly noted.

But in Israel, the loss by death or abduction of a single soldier is an utterly devastating national event. As a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces who served extensively in the Gaza Strip, I remember how -- strolling Jerusalem's streets on leave from my military service -- I saw the glow of a television set in every window. I heard the same newscaster's voice -- multiplied and amplified throughout the city -- as he read the roll call of the day's casualties. Israelis sat huddled and still, with hands over mouths, suppressing shock. Occasionally there were actual cries, as though some mother, in her flat, felt the loss of the soldiers as her very own children.

This is an aspect of Israel that is rarely talked about, a side not portrayed in Steven Spielberg's and Tony Kushner's cynical film, "Munich." Its source is a deeply Jewish perspective that holds that the loss of a single Jewish life is equal to that of an entire universe -- the code of a people who, to this day, remember the anonymous graves of 6 million Jews, including 1 million children, killed in the Holocaust.

Where is Shalit? Is he alive? Today, not only Israelis but Jews everywhere, from San Francisco to Paris to Tel Aviv, are praying for his safe return. And there is anger in our prayers, reflected in the Israeli response, which reflects our deep sense of betrayal over the refusal by the Hamas-led Palestinian government to accept the existence of the Jewish state. It has become abundantly clear since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and the advent of the Hamas government, that not even disengagement is enough.

Hamas, like a jilted homicidal lover, will not rest until Israel is destroyed.

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