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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012


Strive for an Israel-Hamas truce

While international attention has been focused on the upheavals in the Arab world, relations between Israel and militant Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have badly deteriorated. The transformation of the political environment throughout the region is driving that deterioration. Only a political solution can quell the spiral of violence. Although Israeli Cabinet ministers discussed a truce Monday night, differences between Israel and the Islamic group Hamas were reportedly large.

In 2008, militants associated with Hamas peppered Israel with nearly 1,000 rocket attacks. Convinced that there was no other way to end the air assault, Israel launched a two-week ground invasion of the Gaza Strip: Operation Cast Lead.

When it was over, more than 1,000 Palestinians had been killed, many if not most of them civilians, and 13 Israeli lives were lost. The infrastructure of Gaza was devastated; a poor and barely functioning economy was practically dismantled. There was fierce international condemnation of the assault, but the invasion did the job: The rocket attacks from Gaza sharply diminished and Israelis returned to relatively normal lives.

Gradually, however, the rocket attacks resumed. In recent months, the number has returned to 2008 levels. Israeli officials estimate that 750 rockets have been launched from southern Gaza so far this year. As many as 1 million Israelis are forced each day to take shelter. No government can afford to tolerate that sort of insecurity for its people. Nor can it ignore Hamas when one of its spokesmen announces that "There is no security for any Zionist on any single inch of Palestine, and we plan more surprises."

Israeli protests were ignored. Eventually, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a man who always attacks Israel's enemies — decided to strike a blow directly against Hamas and last week assassinated Mr. Ahmed Jabari, Hamas' most senior military commander.

In the eye-for-an-eye mentality of the region, that triggered a spate of retaliatory attacks, which Israel met with yet more attacks by its forces. The Israel Defense Force says that it has hit more than 830 targets in Gaza since it began to take out rocket-launching sites operated by Hamas and other militant groups.

Israel has accelerated its air offensive in recent days by targeting sites connected to the Hamas leadership, a potentially risky move since Hamas is the political authority in Gaza and Israel is now attacking the democratically elected leadership of the area. As of Tuesday, the number of fatalities topped 110, most of them Palestinians in Gaza.

Condemnation of Israel has been swift and harsh. The rubble that is the remains of the bombed out offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh made a compelling backdrop for emergency meetings last week with the Tunisian foreign minister.

An emergency meeting of the Arab League called for more assistance to the Palestinians and a "reconsideration" of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. In the past, that would have been unimaginable. No longer. The new government in Egypt is headed by an Islamist, President Mohamed Morsi, and its commitment to the peace treaty is untested. Officially, the government remains a peace partner, but most observers believe that Cairo is prepared to take a harder line against Israel.

Another ground invasion by the government of Tel Aviv could be the proverbial straw. Israel has already called up 16,000 reservists and has reportedly increased that number to 75,000.

Hamas has more powerful rockets than the ones it has used thus far; a strike late on Friday landed just outside Jerusalem. Hamas' targeting of Jerusalem would be another important milestone in escalation. It would also pose a dilemma for Hamas as many of the city's inhabitants are Palestinians.

Two other factors will influence the decision-making process. The first is domestic politics in the Gaza Strip. Hamas administers Gaza, and Fatah, the more mainstream Palestinian political organization that is the Islamists' bitter rival, runs the West Bank. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, is from Fatah, and he would be happy to see Hamas suffer a political setback. His leverage is limited, however, and he cannot be seen as engaged in rivalry within the Palestinian movement at the expense of the interest of his people.

The second factor is politics in Israel. Ultimately, the decision is Mr. Netanyahu's. Israel will hold an election in January, and while a strike against Israel's enemies usually helps the incumbent, there is no guarantee that another invasion will go well. If a ground attack is not a success, and Israel continues to be assaulted by missiles as its isolation deepens and diplomatic gains that Tel Aviv has made with its neighbors unravel, then Mr. Netanyahu will suffer in the polls.

At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu's real concern is Iran's nuclear program. Gaza is a danger, but Tehran poses an existential threat. Mr. Netanyahu knows that he must muster diplomatic resources to maintain pressure on Iran, and while it is a completely separate issue from his dispute with the Palestinians, for many governments, the two are likely to be linked.

Hamas may be gambling on Mr. Netanyahu's priorities, but he may be betting that he can get in and out of Gaza quickly.

Neither Israel nor Hamas sees much purpose in compromise or decreasing pressure on the other. Nonetheless, the international community should exert pressure on both sides to establish a truce to halt the bloodshed and to set the stage for the negotiation of a lasting ceasefire. As history has shown, prolonged fighting will only serve to further embitter both sides, while causing immense suffering. A political solution must be reached.

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