Crossroads in Gaza

Saturday, January 10, 2009

HAMAS'S QUICK rejection of the U.N. Security Council's call for a cease-fire in Gaza might have surprised some in the West who have followed the mounting civilian casualties and the near-breakdown of access to food, water, and medical services with growing concern. In fact, Hamas revels in the Palestinian suffering its terrorism has triggered. Thousands of its fighters have retreated into Gaza's most densely populated areas, where they continue to fire dozens of rockets a day at Israeli civilians. They want nothing more than to draw Israel into an even bigger and bloodier fight -- during which, Hamas calculates, Israeli forces will suffer heavy casualties, while the even bigger Palestinian losses will reap a propaganda windfall for Hamas across the Middle East and Europe.

Israel's leaders are on the verge of giving Hamas its wish. Its top leaders also rejected the U.N. cease-fire resolution passed Thursday night; now they appear to be debating whether to throw thousands of reserve soldiers into a street-by-street battle. It's not clear what the aim of the new offensive might be. Some Israelis are calling for the overthrow of Hamas's rule in Gaza; others urge a more limited operation to seize a strip of territory along the border with Egypt, which would allow Israel to more directly attack tunnels through which Hamas smuggles weapons.

Either operation would probably do Israel more harm than good -- while raising the already considerable political cost of the war for the United States as well as for Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, Israel's de facto allies against Hamas. Israeli officials have rightly been wary of taking action that would leave their troops bogged down in Gaza -- but several of the options being considered would do just that. For now, there is no responsible Palestinian party to which Israel could hand control of Gaza or even the land near the Egyptian border; the Palestinian Authority, even if willing, remains too weak. Nor is it clear that Israel is capable of stopping either the smuggling or the rocket launches by military means. During the last several years before Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, it was unable to do so.

Israel's best option remains a deal with Egypt under which action to stop smuggling would be intensified on the Egyptian side of the border. Israel would like international forces to join that effort; Egypt has refused, though it says it would accept more expert help and equipment. If Hamas is to accept a truce, Israel will be expected to open its border crossings with Gaza to normal commerce.

Any diplomatic settlement to the conflict, either between Israel and Egypt or including Hamas, would be unsatisfactory in some ways. Hamas would remain in power and declare itself victorious, and probably any effort to stop new arms smuggling would not be completely effective. Still, given the tremendous human costs of the war -- nearly 800 dead, of whom half may be civilians -- and the escalating political cost to Israel and its allies, a deal would be far better than another military escalation. The Bush administration, which so far has done little more than support Israel's decisions throughout this crisis, should now be pressing it to settle.

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