Editorials -- The End of the Gaza Cease-Fire

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

AFTER SIX months of relative calm, hostilities once again are escalating between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Between Friday and yesterday some 60 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel, whose air force responded with strikes against the launchers. So far there have been no serious injuries on the Israeli side, and one Palestinian has been reported killed. But the ugly slide from here is easy to foresee: more rockets fall, and Israel steps up its airstrikes; Hamas turns from homemade rockets fired by proxies to Iranian-made missiles that can reach large Israeli cities. In the last instance, Israel could finally launch the ground invasion of Gaza it has frequently threatened, triggering a bloody conflict that could spread to the West Bank and Lebanon.

Neither side seems to want such an all-out fight -- particularly not Israel, whose defense minister has pointed out that an invasion could cost hundreds of lives and leave thousands of Israeli troops stranded in Gaza without an exit strategy. But neither Israel nor Hamas has been satisfied with the informal cease-fire they reached in June with the help of Egypt. During the summer and fall, the rocket fire from Gaza diminished but never entirely stopped. Israel, in turn, allowed only a modest increase in the flow of goods into Gaza, which has been under virtual siege since last year, and frequently sealed off the strip entirely in response to fresh attacks.

Hamas's Damascus-based leadership appears to have imposed a decision to end the cease-fire upon its administration in Gaza, which will have to live with the resultant suffering. The aim appears to be to force Israel to lift the blockade on the territory, something it is already under growing international pressure to do. If so, Hamas may have calculated poorly. Israel is in the midst of a heated election campaign, and its two leading candidates are taking a predictably hawkish tack: Both promised over the weekend to "topple" the Hamas government. With the United States in the middle of a presidential transition, Israeli military action against Hamas is unlikely to prompt a significant response from Washington.

But an increasing number of Israeli thinkers are pointing out that the prevailing strategy of trying to isolate and destroy Hamas while building up the rival Palestinian leadership in the West Bank hasn't worked. Some 200,000 Gazans recently turned out for a rally in support of Hamas; a war would only strengthen the movement's most radical factions. Israeli officials rightly point out that no country should have to tolerate missile attacks on its cities; such attacks justify a military response. But Israel would be better positioned to defeat Hamas politically and diplomatically if it allowed the full resumption of food, medicine and fuel deliveries to Gaza and made clear its willingness to end other restrictions on civilian trade in exchange for a full cessation of rocket attacks and other hostilities. If Hamas is to be toppled, it will have to be through a political process led by Palestinians.

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