Late on the night of March 6, a Palestinian terrorist entered a Jerusalem yeshiva and unleashed a hail of bullets from a machine gun, killing eight Jewish students and wounding 11 others. The attack was the worst terrorist attack in a major Israeli city in two years.
Predictably, Hamas praised the attack and promised more, and eventually claimed responsibility for it. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians celebrated in the streets of Gaza. This attack, in conjunction with Hamas’ stepped-up rocket attacks on Israeli border towns, reveals the difficulty of trying to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement whilst terrorism continues to emanate from Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The parties developed the Annapolis process in part to work around the inconvenient reality that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas only controls the West Bank. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the violence coming from Gaza and Hamas’ control of that territory present strategic challenges that need to be addressed in some way if the parties are to move forward toward the two-state solution that Israel, Abbas and the international community all desire, but that Hamas is determined to forestall.
As is by now well known, Israel completely withdrew all of its settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Nevertheless, Israeli civilians living in towns near the Gaza border have been the victims of indiscriminate rocket attacks ever since – including when Gaza was still controlled by Fatah. Of course, given that Israel had “ended the occupation” in Gaza – as the Palestinians have been demanding for 40 years – these attacks have absolutely no justification. And they only increased in frequency and range after Hamas evicted Abbas and his Fatah faction from Gaza last June, and intensified again following Hamas’ staged “border breakthrough” into Egypt in late January.
Today, with the substantial city of Ashkelon also a rocket target, 250,000 Israelis live under constant threat of rocket attack. What country in the world would simply tolerate such a situation?
After months of such stepped-up attacks by Hamas, Israel launched a brief incursion into Gaza in early March aimed at stopping the incessant rocket fire. Importantly, Israel’s previous efforts to end the attacks were to no avail. Such efforts included non-military means – negotiating peace with Abbas to demonstrate the benefits of negotiation while isolating Hamas and Gaza economically – and highly targeted military strikes against individual terrorists and terrorist infrastructure. In addition, despite the continued attacks and the fact that Israel no longer occupies Gaza, Israel has continued to provide most of Gaza’s electricity and all of its fuel while allowing in and supplying shipments of food, medicine and other basic necessities.
And yet each and every one of Israel’s responses brings the reflexive criticism of the UN and other usual suspects in the international community. Thus, Israel’s blockade of non-essential goods to Gaza is wrongly labelled “collective punishment”- even though no state can be legally forced to trade with one of its neighbours, much less an openly hostile entity.
Similarly, Israel’s critics contort international law to allege that Israel’s limited use of force targeting specific Palestinian terrorists is somehow “disproportionate”, without ever offering what would be a “proportionate” response to indiscriminate Palestinian rocket attacks that intentionally target innocent civilians. In fact, international law permits Israel’s actions while Hamas violates the laws of war by targeting civilians, launching attacks from civilian areas and using Palestinian civilians as human shields.
Those who reflexively criticise any and all Israeli responses to terrorist attacks sometimes argue that Israel should instead “engage” with Hamas or include it in the peace process. But to what end?
Hamas refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist within any borders, and remains firmly committed to Israel’s eradication. Hamas will only offer a temporary ceasefire, holding out the option of relaunching attacks at a time and place of its choosing – after it has rearmed, retrained and resupplied. This is exactly what Hezbollah did after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Indeed, Hamas fighters themselves have recently admitted that they are modelling themselves on the Hezbollah example. And in another ominous similarity between the two terrorist groups, Hamas fighters are also being trained and supplied by Iran, whose president has threatened to wipe Israel off of the map.
Moreover, engaging with Hamas now would completely undermine Abbas’ government. Since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006, Israel and the “Quartet” (the UN, EU, Russia and US) have pursued a joint strategy of isolating Hamas as long as it refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and agree to abide by previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has steadfastly refused to accept even these most basic prerequisites for inclusion in peace negotiations.
At the same time, Israel and the Quartet have tried to bolster Abbas’ position through massive economic aid pledges and political progress toward a two-state solution via the Annapolis process.
Terrorist attacks emanating from Hamas-controlled Gaza will continue to undermine peace negotiations between Israel and Abbas. Nonetheless, Israel and the US are continuing to pursue such negotiations, in the hopes that if Gazans see peace and economic development in the West Bank, sooner or later they will demand or force Hamas to allow them to be part of it.
But caving in to Hamas’ demands in the face of violence only undermines any hope of such an outcome, since Hamas is simply not interested in peace. The international community should speak with clarity: the intentional targeting of innocent civilians via cross-border rocket attacks or barbaric terrorism cannot be justified, tolerated or rewarded and must stop. Putting an end to such attacks is the best way to provide the space for negotiations to move forward and to achieve a two-state solution.