Deciding which group, Hamas or Israel, should get the larger measure of condemnation for the violent attacks and counter-attacks over the weekend is not the role of the U.S. government. Instead, President Obama and the new Congress, when they take office in three weeks, should use the bloodshed as a pretext to open a new chapter in negotiating a peaceful coexistence of Palestinians and Israelis.
Hamas, the former rogue Palestinian militant group, now is the controlling force of Gaza, the narrow strip between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea. Hamas has been responsible for launching the intermittent missile attacks against adjacent Israeli towns over the last few years. A cease-fire disintegrated a week ago, and Israel responded to the missiles – which have been largely ineffective in taking human life – with airstrikes that killed more than 225 Palestinians. The death totals eclipse any in the last 60 years.
A spokesman for the Bush administration laid the blame on Hamas and said the group’s members “are nothing but thugs.” Blaming the group that has been sending missiles over the border is logical and understandable. But the level of retaliation by Israel only ensures more resolve on the part of Hamas to be a constant threat to Israeli peace and security.
The depth of hatred between Palestinians and Israelis is nearly unfathomable. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya said of the Israeli attacks: “We say in all confidence that even if we are hung on the gallows or they make our blood flow in the streets or they tear our bodies apart, we will bow only before God and we will not abandon Palestine.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded just as unequivocally: “There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and this is the time for fighting.” Mr. Barak said the strong military response was unavoidable: “I don’t see any other way for Hamas to change its behavior,” he told the New York Times.
Two years ago, Israel responded in similar manner to Lebanon, launching airstrikes and then a ground invasion after the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah captured and killed Israeli soldiers near the border of the two countries. The Times reported that Hezbollah is politically stronger since the attacks.
And that is the dilemma Israel faces. A decisive military response seems reasonable in the face of violence from an enemy. But the long view suggests Israel is no more secure after such a response. If the U.S. has any pressure to bring to the parties, it must use it to push them toward a return to a cease-fire. Then, the new administration must open a dialogue, which leads to peaceful co-existence. Key to that process is persuading Palestinians that the U.S. is a fair arbiter; this is where a new administration has one brief moment to work with a clean slate.