Truce over, Gaza confronts Israel

The truce, flawed and half-formed as it was, has ended. The familiar tit-for-tat of Palestinian rocket launches and Israeli airstrikes has already resumed.

Israeli politicians Sunday were once again debating the question: What to do about the Gaza Strip?

This time the debate is happening in the context of Israeli elections, with all sides striving to look tough enough to lead the Jewish state in its showdown with the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza.

On Sunday, one of an estimated 19 rockets fired from Gaza struck a home in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, and an Israeli jet attacked what the military said was a rocket-launching site.

No serious casualties were reported in either incident, though a militant was reported killed in an Israeli airstrike Saturday. The resumption of active hostilities after the shaky six-month truce ended Friday has increased pressure on the Israeli government to decisively end the stalemate.


The two front-runners for prime minister, Likud Party chief Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni, both issued strong statements pledging to topple Hamas. The Islamist group won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and took full control of Gaza after a brief unity government with its rival Fatah faction collapsed in 2007. Fatah, seen by the U.S. and Israel as a potential partner in peace, now controls only the West Bank.

Livni, the current foreign minister, pledged that ending Hamas’ reign in Gaza would be her top priority if she is elected.

“The state of Israel, and a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza,” Livni told a Kadima gathering, saying that she would use “military, economic and diplomatic” means.

“Whenever they shoot at Israel, Israel must respond,” Livni said.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, visited Sderot and the home struck by a Gazan rocket. The former prime minister accused the Kadima-led government of helping create the quagmire on Israel’s southern flank.

“For three years, Kadima’s ministers have been burying their heads in the sand. It’s time to change that,” Netanyahu said. “In the long run, we have no choice but to topple Hamas’ rule. Right now we have to go from passive response to active assault. We have a variety of options before we take the strip.”

For his part, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised decisive action against Hamas when the time was right, warning Livni, Netanyahu and other political contenders against making too many inflammatory declarations.

“There are many people who think that if one makes aggressive and daring statements, then these statements solve all problems. I have no intention to compete with any of those who issue such statements,” Olmert said before Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “The state of Israel will know when to respond correctly and with the necessary responsibility.”

The feisty rhetoric masks the stark fact that Israel faces few palatable military options on dealing with Hamas. A long-term blockade of Gaza, backed by Western powers and assisted by Egypt, has destroyed the local economy and reduced most of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents to poverty. But it has failed to seriously weaken Hamas’ hold on the narrow coastal territory.

Israeli military commanders generally acknowledge that a full-scale retaking of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew its settlers and troops in 2005, would be complicated and bloody. One of the only military options available to Israel, short of a new invasion, would be to resume a policy of assassinating senior Hamas leaders.

In the face of such a dilemma, one prominent Israeli is proposing what most Israelis would consider a truly radical option: direct negotiations.

“Most level-headed politicians know the truth: There is no military solution,” wrote Gideon Levy in the Haaretz daily paper Sunday, in an article headlined, “Talk to Hamas.” “Still, no one dares ask why, for heaven’s sake, not try to talk directly with Hamas.”

Levy declared that Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas until it formally recognizes the Jewish state’s right to exist was a political smoke screen. He advocated an immediate lifting of the blockade, an opening of Gaza’s borders and an invitation to senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh for direct talks on a common future.

“There’s no chance that Hamas will change its stripes entirely, but direct talks may be more pragmatic than they seem,” Levy argued. “It has some reasonable leaders who value life and want to improve the wretched situation of their nation. They too realize the current situation is a dead-end for both us and them.”