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No Happy Endings in Gaza

I’ve got war refugees in my home today. I mean my daughter’s fellow second-year students from the animation program at Sapir College, located right next to Sderot. The campus is under fire and has shut its gates, so these budding cartoonists are unable to work on their projects or attend their classes. The studies are so intense, and the creative energy so high, that they all look like lost souls when they are denied their storyboards and cameras.

Their displacement is nothing compared to the suffering the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been enduring since Saturday, nor compared to that of the permanent residents of Sderot and other southern Israeli towns near Gaza, those who don’t have homes up north to flee to.

When my daughter and her classmates enrolled at Sapir, they knew they’d be studying under fire. But that advance knowledge doesn’t mean that they don’t long to study and draw in peace.

Israel’s attack on Gaza is unlikely to achieve that. Israelis should be wary by now of national leaders who promise that this war, finally, will end Palestinian (or Hezbollah, or whatever) attacks on Israel. It’s unlikely to bring an end to Hamas rule in Gaza, as Tom Segev noted in yesterday’s Ha’aretz. Gazans aren’t the prisoners of Hamas tyranny—this is the government they chose, and pressure and suffering simply reinforces their solidarity and their loyalty to their leadership. And as my South Jerusalem blogging partner Gershom Gorenberg noted yesterday, we shouldn’t necessarily want Hamas to fall. A chaotic, leaderless Gaza Strip will be even worse for Israel than one ruled by Islamic militants.

The current operation is the bloodiest one Israel has ever launched against its Palestinian neighbors. Inevitably, in a place as densely populated as the Gaza Strip is, the civilian death toll is high. That will increase Palestinian and Arab resentment against Israel and lead again to charges from foreign governments and human rights organizations that Israel is guilty of war crimes. The death and destruction that Israel is wreaking on Gaza, they have already begun to charge, is incommensurate with the damage to property and only occasional loss of life inflicted by the missiles and mortars that Palestinian fire from Gaza into Israel.

That’s true, but there’s a fundamental error in the logic. Israel does not need to wait for 300 of its civilians to be killed for it to launch an attack that kills 300 Palestinians. The six-month truce that ended this month brought a welcome respite to both sides, but it ended with Israel facing a better-armed enemy, one capable of doing far more damage. Improved Hamas missiles can reach as far as Be’ersheva and Ashdod, which are both major population centers and home to critical civilian and military infrastructure, including power plants and one of Israel’s major ports.

Israel needs to set back Hamas’s home-grown arms industry and to destroy the tunnels that have been used to import heavy arms into the Gaza Strip. Hamas also needs to understand that, under attack, Israel will be no less united and determined than the Palestinians are. A new modus vivendi needs to be created—one in which Israel permits food, medicine, and vital civilian supplies to enter Gaza in exchange for a Hamas commitment to stop using independent local militias as a proxy for attacking Israel. At the same time, both sides need to begin talking, directly or indirectly—and with the inclusion of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank—to create long-range understandings and to work towards a diplomatic accommodation.

This almost certainly means that Hamas will continue to fire missiles on Sderot from time to time, and the Israel will continue to attack targets in the Gaza Strip. Neither side will be prepared to give up its military options until and if a permanent settlement is achieved. A managed, low-level conflict is a realistic, achievable, and worthwhile goal. If Israel sets its war aims higher, it will be operating under the same kind of delusion that has in the past led it into costly and embarrassing military fiascos.

It’s easy for both the military and civilian leaderships to get carried away. What seems like success and crisp, efficient military execution in the first part of an operation leads to the temptation to set higher goals and pursue the operation further. Let’s not let that happen this time around. Happy endings are nice, but we’re not living in a cartoon.

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