In Gaza, no one is winning
In Gaza, no one is winning

In Gaza, no one is winning

A war neither Israel nor Hamas truly wanted has turned into one both are willing to wage. The six-month cease-fire that expired on Dec. 19 was not ideal. Israel suffered periodic rocket attacks and knew its enemy was stockpiling firepower. Hamas endured a punishing economic blockade, undermining its hopes of running Gaza. A sensible compromise was available: ending rocket smuggling and launches in exchange for opening the crossings. But without bilateral engagement or effective third-party mediation, it inexorably came to this: a brutal military conflict in which both sides feel they have more to gain by persevering than by ending the warfare. In short, the confrontation was easier to avoid than it will be to stop.

For Hamas, prolonging the cease-fire was appealing but only under certain conditions. Relative calm enabled it to consolidate power and cripple internal rivals. But the siege never lifted. Increasingly, Hamas leaders were in the position of seeming to cling to the truce for personal safety at the price of collective hardship. They intensified rocket fire, an unsubtle message that they would use violence to force open the crossings. In the first days, Israel's retaliatory campaign shook Hamas's fighters. It did not catch them unprepared.

Instead, Hamas expects to reap political benefit from material loss. It is no military match for Israel but can assert victory by surviving the onslaught. Its domestic and regional prestige, bruised by harsh tactics in taking over Gaza, would magnify; those of its domestic foes - President Abbas, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, and Fatah - shrivel. A ground invasion was expected and, in some Hamas quarters, hoped for. House-to-house guerrilla warfare, they surmise, is more favorable terrain.

From Israel's perspective, months of overall quiet were welcome, albeit with understandable qualms. Hamas amassed a more powerful arsenal; Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured in 2006, remained imprisoned; and sporadic rocket fire continued. All this it could withstand. But the intensification of attacks immediately preceding and following the truce compelled Israel to act.

Israel can go far. Hamas has neither strategic depth nor ability to resupply. Israel can significantly damage it, occupy the north to limit rocket launches or south to deal with smuggling. Yet with such unlimited military possibilities come heightened political perils: there is no logical exit or end point. A massive intervention that kills or captures Hamas military and political leaders, effectively toppling the movement, could be next. But at what cost? Who will take over on the back of Israel's operation? Who can govern where the Islamists' political and social roots run so deep? A crushing military victory ultimately, in other words, might not be that much or that lasting of a political win. In President Bush's famous words, Israel could face its own version of a catastrophic success.

The United States and others should press for an immediate cessation of hostilities. So far, the plea has bumped against the argument that this would preserve ingredients that prompted the conflagration. True enough. The now-defunct cease-fire was riddled with holes, and those need filling: monitoring the cease-fire; opening Gaza's crossings; and ending arms smuggling. But to protect civilians and limit political damage (regional radicalization; further discrediting of any "moderates," the peace process and US), the first priority must be to stop the fighting.

Gaza's tragedy is the product of a botched cease-fire agreement. More than that, it is the story of two years of unmitigated collective failures: by Hamas, which missed the opportunity to act as a responsible political actor; by Israel, which stuck to a shortsighted policy of isolating Gaza and seeking to undermine Hamas, which neither helped nor hurt it; by the Palestinian Authority leadership, which refused the consequences of the Islamists' electoral victory, tried to undo it, and ended up looking like the representative of some Palestinians against others; and by the international community, which demanded that Hamas evolve from militant to political movement without giving it sufficient incentives and only belatedly recognized the merits of Palestinian unity after spending years obstructing it.

This should change. Sustainable calm can be achieved neither by the world ignoring Hamas nor by Hamas disregarding basic international obligations. The Islamist movement will have to cease attacks from Gaza; in return, it should be allowed a political and security role in the Strip and at its crossings. This might signify a "victory" for Hamas. But that is the consequence of a misguided policy that insisted on shutting Gaza off in the first place. Besides, if rocket fire and smuggling ends and lasting quiet ensues, it would constitute a substantial victory for Israel as well - not to mention for ordinary people on both sides, tragically trapped between the two.

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