After the Fighting in Gaza

Posted Jan. 06, 2009, at 6:24 p.m.

With prospects for a cease-fire in Gaza growing after an Israeli bomb reportedly killed dozens at a school there, attention in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the world must turn to what comes next. Even if Israel is successful in destroying, or severely weakening, Hamas, the Palestinian group that for years has lobbed rockets into Israel, that is not an end to its problems. Until Israelis and Palestinians find a way to coexist, there will be no peace in the Middle East.

Coexistence has been elusive since Israel was re-created in 1948. It remains to be seen whether the current fighting fades or improves the chances for a negotiated resolution.

In the Gaza Strip, 1.5 million people live in a small area, 25 miles long by 7 miles at its widest, sandwiched between Egypt, the Mediterranean Sea and Israel. Movement in and out of Gaza is tightly controlled by Israel. Unemployment runs about 50 percent and those with jobs work mostly for aid agencies and the government. Poverty and childhood disease are rampant.

Conditions in Gaza have led to resentment against Israel and the United States, its largest supporter. It also helped Hamas, which Western countries have labeled a terrorist organization, gain control of the government in Gaza. By providing jobs and economic help to residents, the militant organi-zation maintained strong support.

The other Palestinian territory, the West Bank, is controlled by Fatah, a moderate group, and conditions there are much better.

For years, Hamas forces have fired homemade rockets, called Qassams, into Israel, forcing residents into bomb shelters. Late last month, Israel bombarded Gaza and sent in ground troops to stop the rocket fire.

There is little question that Israeli forces can defeat Hamas militarily. What follows that “victory” will determine whether the fighting stops or re-erupts, in Israel or elsewhere.

“Israel cannot achieve peace or even political stability by turning Gaza into even more of a defeated, hopeless Palestinian prison camp,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a report this week.

To avoid this outcome, which would empower Hezbollah and al-Qaida while weakening moderate Arab regimes, Mr. Cordesman offers four options. First, he suggests imposing a Fatah-run government in Gaza. Although likely to be resisted by Hamas supporters, a Fatah government would be Pal-estinian and preferable to an Israeli occupation. Making life in Gaza more like that in the West Bank would offer hope and opportunities.

Second, he calls for massive international aid, especially construction jobs. This would prove the United States and Europe are concerned about the fate of Palestinians while offering employment and schooling as an alternative to bomb-making.

His other options are to create a Palestinian state and resume the peace process, which has been ongoing for decades, only to be undermined by Israeli settlement-building and Palestinian violence.

Israel, the United States, Europe and others should be ready to pursue such options.

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