Israel and Hamas must heed a U.N. Security Council call for a “durable and fully respected” cease-fire in the war in the Gaza Strip, which has left about 800 dead and 3,000 wounded, including hundreds of Palestinian women and children. Undoubtedly, Hamas can find a way to keep terrorizing southern Israeli cities with rockets, and Israel has the might to continue pulverizing Gaza, but for what? There are no lasting military solutions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We don’t know yet how much of a military setback Israel has dealt to Hamas in the two-week air and ground assault, though it is hard to imagine it will be sufficient to justify the casualties and destruction in Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians. Weapons stockpiles and supply tunnels have been destroyed; leaders of the military wing and fighters have been killed. That may eventually buy short-term relief for the people of southern Israel who live under a rain of rocket fire, and whose government has every obligation to secure their safety. But rather than weaken Hamas politically, it seems just as likely that the effect of the bloody siege will be to harden sentiment against Israel on the Palestinian street and drive new recruits into the arms of Hamas’ military. Demonstrations against Israel around the world -- including one 50,000-strong in Alexandria, Egypt, on Friday -- make it more difficult for Palestinian and Arab moderates to win support. The battering of Hamas and Gaza also weakens Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s West Bank negotiating partners in Fatah. That’s not good for Israel.
The Gaza war has the support of upward of 90% of Jews in Israel. They are rightfully fed up with Hamas, an organization that has killed hundreds of Israelis, glorifies suicide bombers as martyrs of liberation and even today does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israelis blame Hamas for endangering its own people, because the militants are firing from densely populated areas and hiding among civilians. Again, Israel’s case is as strong as its tactics are poor.
Internationally, the costs of the Gaza war to Israel’s standing have been high. The United Nations and International Red Cross have condemned Israel for blocking delivery of medical and humanitarian aid to civilians, and for killing two Red Cross workers. At least 43 Palestinians were killed and 150 wounded Tuesday in an Israeli attack near a U.N. school where they had sought safety in the Jabaliya refugee camp. On Monday, according to a U.N. report, 30 Palestinians died in a building that was shelled by Israel two days after Israeli forces directed civilians to take shelter there. In the U.N. school attack, at least, the Israeli military said it was responding to Hamas mortar fire -- a claim for which U.N. officials say there is no evidence, although Hamas has been firing from the camps.
Another source of friction with the international community is that Israel has not allowed the media into the sealed Gaza Strip to report from the ground and investigate such incidents. The United Nations and many world news organizations have accused Israel of violating international press freedom and have called on Israel to allow the media to report. The Israeli Defense Ministry has cited “security considerations” in denying access, but clearly the government calculated that it had nothing to gain by letting reporters onto the battlefield.
Many Israelis believe that they lost the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon because, in their view, international coverage favored the underdog Lebanese over the more powerful Israeli state. In that war, Lebanese casualties vastly outnumbered Israel’s -- about 10 to 1 -- and the physical destruction was largely in Lebanon. In a case similar to the shelling of the U.N. school in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces fired on a residential building in the southern village of Qana, killing 28 civilians who had taken refuge there. The media, free to move in Lebanon, rushed to the scene and sent back horrific images and heartbreaking stories. Recalling Lebanon, this time Israel closed off Gaza. As government spokesman Daniel Seaman told the New York Times last week, “Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that.”
Neither Israel nor the United States wants to negotiate with Hamas before the organization recognizes Israel’s right to exist alongside a Palestinian state; indeed, Hamas’ refusal to acknowledge that most basic right is evidence of vicious intentions. The problem for Israel is that, in addition to its military wing, Hamas is a political movement woven into the social fabric of Gaza much like Hezbollah is in Lebanon. It is a political party that won parliamentary elections in 2006, and it’s not likely to be eliminated by Israel, at least by military means. Similarly, despite its best efforts and support from Iran, Hamas isn’t getting rid of Israel. The Jewish state has the most powerful army in the region, and nuclear weapons. It also has the unwavering support of the United States and much of the international community. All of this precludes a military solution.
Both sides know the framework of the immediate deal they have to cut: Hamas has to stop firing rockets at Israeli civilians, and Israel has to stop bombing, withdraw its troops and allow in humanitarian aid. Hamas rejected the U.N. proposal for a cease-fire, saying no one had consulted its leaderson the contents. Unpleasant as it may be, directly or indirectly, Hamas must be included in a negotiation for a cease-fire; otherwise, the rockets will continue. Then the two sides must turn to the issues that gave rise to the fighting: The smuggling tunnels have to be closed for good. Israel has to open Gaza’s borders, even if Hamas remains in power.
Even that difficult solution is only temporary. The Palestinians have to resolve their internal political divisions, acknowledge Israel’s permanent place in the region and cease their acts of terrorism. Israel has to truly embrace a negotiated two-state solution with a viable Palestine. The new Obama administration has to fully engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and retake the role of an active and impartial broker. Then and only then can Israelis and Palestinians get back to the core issue of negotiating a lasting peace.