It is impossible to truly say when the latest round of violence between Israel and Palestine began. Was it when Mahmoud Abbas engineered a joint agreement with Hamas to create a unified Palestinian government, and Israel refused to deal with it, saying any government with Hamas was a terrorist organization, thus leaving no way to negotiate a peaceful settlement of Israel’s blockade? According to the NY Times, the new government “offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza; it was formed without a single Hamas member; it retained the same Ramallah-based prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance minister and foreign minister; and, most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by America and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel.” Yet Israel responded by refusing to recognize the new government and announcing 3,300 new settlements in the West Bank. Was it when Hamas decided to continue taking in shipments of rockets from Iran and to extend its network of tunnels deep into Israeli territory? Was it when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by rogue Hamas members in defiance of Hamas’ leaders? Or when Israel retaliated by arresting 500 members of Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank?
However we got here, rockets are now flying from Gaza, and Hamas has refused to accept a ceasefire unless their demands are met. Meanwhile, with unprecedented internal solidarity, Israelis are demanding actions to finally end Hamas’ ability to wreak terror in Israeli territory, whether by rockets or by tunnel-based raids.
Can Israel in fact end Hamas’ ability to harm Israelis? That is doubtful, or will at least take longer than expected; one Israeli intelligence officer suggested it could take years of occupation of a border strip between Gaza and Israel to ensure the tunnels are destroyed and not rebuilt, and a far more intrusive blockade to ensure that no rockets or explosive materials reach Gaza (although even pipes and fertilizer can make home-made rockets capable of reaching southern Israeli towns).
At this point, Israel is brushing off claims of genocide and mass murder. The tunnels represent a new level of offense and an existential threat to Israeli peace and security; the Israeli public and government is right in insisting they be destroyed.
There is no genocide here — Hitler rounded up Jews all across Europe on no other grounds than that they were Jews, and despite they never having threatened or lifted a finger against Germany he ordered them to be enslaved and executed. That was genocide. The Israelis are not rounding up Palestinians and sending them to camps for work or execution; the Israelis are not attacking people who wish them no harm. Israel is responding to a regime that has not only called openly for the destruction of their state and the deportation of their population, they are responding to direct attacks on their people by rockets and to infiltration of their territory by tunnels for the sole purpose of making terror attacks.
When Osama bin-Laden planned an attack that killed over 3,000 Americans (the equivalent of killing 80 Israelis, in proportion to population), America responded by invading Afghanistan and pursuing a war that left tens of thousands dead and created over two million refugees. It may have been a misguided and ultimately ineffective response, but no one claimed it was not a military response to a military threat.
Israel is killing civilians because you cannot pursue a war against an enemy that wants to destroy your state, and which is fighting an asymmetric war and basing itself in an area crowded with civilians, without civilians being killed. That is as much a direct result of Hamas’ war-fighting strategy as it is of Israel’s response. If Hamas had an air force and tank force capable of meeting Israel’s army in open battle then probably fewer Palestinian civilians would be killed. But then many more Israeli civilians and soldiers would be killed, and that would be exactly what Hamas wants.
Civilian deaths and refugees are a tragedy but inescapable fact of modern warfare. Until Hamas gives up its attacks and weapons used against Israel, (both rockets and tunnels), then both Hamas and the population that supports it and in which it shelters its activities will suffer. The German population suffered massive bombings until Hitler was defeated and Germany surrendered; the Japanese suffered even worse bombings (both conventional fire-bombings and two nuclear blasts) until they surrendered. Hamas will be able to stop the damage to the civilian population of Gaza any time that they surrender. Until then, they will pay the price for having accumulated an arsenal of rockets and building a network of infiltration tunnels and choosing to use them to attack Israel, whatever their original motivation or cause.
Do the Palestinians have valid grievances against Israel and its occupation? Of course they do — the Israeli settlements that invade their lands, and the treatment of their civilians by the settlers and the military that defends them, is wretched to the point of being intolerable. Gaza had some support for access to food, medicines, and construction materials from Egypt before the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime; but the new Egyptian military government has tightened the blockade and wanted to undermine Hamas as well, leaving Hamas desperate to do anything to change the current situation.
However, none of that justifies rocket or terror attacks on Israel; none of that justifies spending scare resources and construction materials on building infiltration tunnels many kilometers into Israel. West Bank Palestinians were building a case for membership in the UN, and mounting non-violent public protests against their treatment by Israel. Those were viable strategies, although slow-moving and requiring patience. The Hamas approach of staging terror attacks, seeking to provoke Israeli violence in order to win sympathy for the deaths of Palestinian civilians and children is a callous, cruel strategy, one that neither Israel nor the world should reward.
The unfortunate problem now is that however the current military campaign ends, Israel and Palestine are locked in an endless embrace. The more damage that Israel does to Gaza’s infrastructure and leadership, the more likely Israel is to inherit responsibility for the population left behind. “You break it, you own it,” warned Colin Powell regarding America’s invasion of Iraq. That invasion was also a great initial success, with overwhelming force destroying Iraq’s ability to resist. Yet in the longer run, America’s inability to create a stable, self-governing state from the ruins of its invasion created the even bigger problem of the Islamic Caliphate taking over eastern Syrian and Western Iraq today. If Israel destroys Hamas by force, will the result be a Gaza warmly receptive to the West Bank leadership of Mahmoud Abbas? Or will the result be a broken, chaotic territory providing fertile ground for ISIS or other extreme groups to mount even more desperate suicide attacks against Israel in the future?
Israel can only extricate itself from this mess by getting an international authority to take responsibility for the Israel/Gaza border and play a more active role in the administration of Gaza. Whether that is a UN force, or a joint Turkish/Egyptian/American force, or a NATO force is less important than creating some buffer between Israel and Palestinians that will provide the former with security and the latter with peace.
Clearly, the leadership of Hamas has not been able to promote peace, or even to abide by the terms of brief cease-fires. Replacing Hamas may be necessary to move forward; but replacing Hamas’ authority by that of Israel, or of West Bank leaders who have had no traction in Gaza, will likely only move the situation toward greater violence in the future.
Part of the Palestinians’ turn to violence has been because they believe no one in the West has been sufficiently active in supporting their cause. Perhaps once Hamas has been disarmed or destroyed, the time will come for the West to take a more active role; not to support the Palestinians against Israel, but to enforce security for all sides.