Terrorism remains the problem

Colin Rubenstein

Age online, March 8, 2008

LATE on Thursday night a Palestinian terrorist killed eight Jewish students and wounded 11 others when he unleashed a hail of bullets inside a religious school in Jerusalem. It is the worst terrorist attack in a major Israel city in two years.

While not claiming responsibility, Hamas praised the attack and promised more, as thousands of Palestinians celebrated in the streets of Gaza. Coming on the heels of months of stepped-up rocket attacks on Israeli border towns by Hamas, this attack illustrates that wanton terrorism remains the key obstacle to achieving the two-state solution that Israel and most others desire.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has repeatedly said that Israel is prepared to make “painful concessions” in exchange for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace. This position is nothing new: former prime minister Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001 were far reaching while Israel offered to negotiate giving Jordan and Egypt back the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively, both immediately following the 1967 Six Day War, and as part of their later peace agreements.

Unfortunately, terrorist attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian groups never stopped during the Oslo era and Yasser Arafat responded to Barak’s offers by launching the five-year second intifada. This violence-as-counter-offer convinced Israel that it did not have a “partner in peace”, and in 2005 Israel shifted its strategy for peace to a process of unilateral disengagement from the Palestinian territories.

One important step in that process was the complete withdrawal of all Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Nevertheless, civilian towns near the Gaza border have been the victims of indiscriminate rocket attacks ever since. These attacks have only increased in frequency and range after Hamas evicted Fatah from Gaza in a bout of internecine warfare last June, and intensified again following Hamas’ staged “border breakthrough” into Egypt in late January, which allowed massive smuggling of military equipment into Gaza.

After months of such stepped-up attacks by Hamas, last week Israel launched a brief incursion into Gaza aimed at stopping the incessant rocket fire. This offensive followed Israel’s efforts to bring an end to the rocket fire through non-military means – negotiating peace with Abbas while isolating Hamas – and highly targeted military strikes against individual terrorists and terrorist infrastructure.

Yet, throughout, 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.

In contrast to Israel, which only targets combatants, Hamas and other terrorist organisations violate the laws of war by targeting Israeli civilians and launching their attacks from population centres, using ordinary Gazans as human shields and putting them at risk from Israeli retaliations.

That innocent Palestinians are killed or injured is more than unfortunate, but the blame must lie with Hamas and the terrorists who launch the attacks in the first place. Hamas openly says it seeks such casualties, with spokesman Fawzi Barhoum telling The New York Times: “The number of martyrs is the price of convincing world opinion about the justice of the Palestinian cause.” Israeli has said repeatedly, as Olmert said this week, that if the rockets stop, so will Israel counter-attacks.

Those who reflexively criticise any and all Israeli response to terrorist attacks sometimes argue that Israel should instead “engage” with Hamas or include the terrorist organisation in the negotiating process. 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 offer only 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, eventually instigating the 2006 Lebanon War. Why would anyone want to repeat this scenario? More immediately, engaging with Hamas would completely undermine the more moderate 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 pre-requisites 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 certainly undermine peace negotiations between Israel and Abbas, and Hamas will prevent Gaza joining any agreement. 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 only undermines any hope of such an outcome, since Hamas is interested not in an actual peace agreement but only in undermining Abbas and obtaining whatever concessions it can to enable it to resume violence from a better position. The international community should speak with clarity: the intentional targeting of innocent civilians via cross-border rocket attacks cannot be justified, tolerated or rewarded and must stop.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is the Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (www.aijac.org.au).