Rocket From Gaza

Friday, May 18, 2007

FROM DAMASCUS, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal yesterday hailed what he called "a historic opportunity." He was referring to the death of several members of his own Islamic movement in airstrikes by Israel. Even while engaged in bloody street fighting with the rival Palestinian Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip this week, Hamas has been firing scores of crude rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, hoping to draw the Israeli military into a fight in Gaza that would mimic its costly invasion of Lebanon last summer and unite Palestinians behind Hamas's extremist agenda. By last night, Mr. Meshal was dangerously close to getting his wish.

The growing willingness of Arab and European states to tolerate and even aid the Hamas movement has been based on the notion that Hamas could be coaxed toward more civilized behavior and tacit recognition of Israel; that is why many supported the creation of a "unity" government of Hamas with the secular and more moderate Fatah. But Mr. Meshal and his sponsors in Syria and Iran have a very different agenda: to use force to intimidate and eventually dominate Fatah, and to wage an unending war of attrition against Israel. That's the same course that Hezbollah, another proxy of Iran and Syria, has been pursuing in Lebanon.

Israel's dilemma is that it cannot stop rocket attacks from Gaza without invading and reoccupying the territory -- and maybe not even then -- but it also cannot indefinitely tolerate daily attacks on its own citizens and their homes. The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which already is under heavy pressure to resign because of its failure to defeat Hezbollah, knows it is being invited into what Hamas regards as a trap, but the government hasn't found an alternative other than the limited airstrikes it launched yesterday. The government has resisted parts of a security plan offered by a U.S. envoy, Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, that calls for Israel to help bolster a Fatah security force to check Hamas. It has also refused to extend a now-ruptured cease-fire from Gaza to the West Bank because it calculates that its operations against Palestinian militants in the West Bank are preventing suicide bombings in Israel.

Western and Arab intervention offers the best hope of heading off a war in Gaza that could easily spread back to Lebanon, and beyond. Egypt, which has allowed Hamas to smuggle hundreds of tons of weapons and explosives, needs to act decisively to seal its border with Gaza. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states should step up pressure on Hamas and on Syria, which is helping Hezbollah rearm in Lebanon. The Bush administration, which has focused much of its energy on a far-fetched attempt to start talks about a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement, needs to urgently mobilize its allies in pursuit of a more basic goal: preventing another summer war.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company