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Put a stop to this

In the densely populated Gaza Strip, Hamas is ensconced in houses, schools and mosques, fighting under cover of civilians. Israel, meanwhile, has bombed extensively, sent in ground forces to cut off Gaza City and taken up positions atop apartment buildings, with residents inside. More than 550 Palestinians have been killed and 2,000 wounded since the Israeli offensive began Dec. 27. At least a quarter of the victims are civilians, many of them children. And most of the 1.5 million Gazans are hunkered down between the two forces, grappling with shortages of water, electricity, cooking gas and other basic supplies. This must stop.

The stated goal of Israel’s airstrikes and ground assault is to prevent Hamas from firing rockets into Israeli territory, as the group has done by the hundreds in recent months. Although the numbers have been greatly reduced in the last few days, Hamas says it will not stop firing rockets until Israel ends its assault and the economic blockade of Gaza that has been in place almost from the time Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority there in June 2007.

This page has supported Israel’s right to self-defense. No state can tolerate an almost daily barrage of cross-border rocket attacks against its people, no matter how many or few are hit by the weapons; four Israelis have died in rocket attacks since the offensive began. By the same token, we have called for an end to a blockade that amounts to the collective punishment of Palestinians under Hamas rule. Israel cannot deny civilians access to food, fuel and medicine to make the political point that Hamas is a terrorist group bringing misery to its people.

Israel has destroyed border tunnels that served as conduits for weapons trafficking from Egypt, as well as weapons stocks. That’s fair. It also has invaded Gaza and occupied the northern areas that have served as the launchpad for most of the rockets. That’s not practical. Israel maintained an occupied security zone in Lebanon for years. It didn’t work all that well there, and it won’t work this time either. Israel would have to occupy virtually all of the Gaza Strip because Hamas now has rockets with a range of about 25 miles. More important, Palestinians have demonstrated that they will violently resist an Israeli occupation.

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It is incumbent on the international community to broker a cease-fire -- quickly. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is taking the lead, and President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama must throw their support behind this effort. A deal must be reached that requires Hamas to stop firing rockets and smuggling weapons, and that demands Israel end the military assault and the economic blockade. Israelis and Palestinians must turn to negotiating a lasting peace.


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