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The Monitor's View

Israeli exit from Gaza's maze

Restraint in defending itself from Hamas rockets will give moral strength to Israel.

March 3, 2008



Israel long ago figured out how to protect itself from stone-throwing Palestinians and, to some degree, suicide bombers. It's made a formal peace with two Arab states and tacitly with others. Can it now stop Islamic rulers in nearby Gaza from raining small rockets on Israeli civilians in the name of terror?

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The aerial attacks by Hamas have escalated in recent weeks, largely for two reasons:

•As a radical and anti-Israel Islamic group, Hamas needs to divert attention from its part in the harsh living conditions of the 1.5 million Palestinians who live on a sandy strip along the Mediterranean that's only seven miles wide and 25 miles long. Elected to power in 2006, Hamas seems to act more like a political arm of Iran than a government seeking the social and economic well-being of its people.

•Hamas is intent on stopping Israel from making a separate peace with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who barely rules the Palestinian lands in the West Bank.

It's won that last point so far. The peace talks were suspended Saturday by Mr. Abbas after Israel clumsily attacked a Hamas stronghold but not without also killing many civilians, perhaps children.

That Hamas's 35,000 fighters put civilians in harm's way on purpose is quite possible. Such a heinous act requires the world to have patience before condemning Israel in its limited attacks on the "governing infrastructure" of Hamas. But Israel must not feel compelled to fully reinvade Gaza (from which it withdrew in 2005).

What is worth criticizing is Israel's strategy to strangle the Gazan economy in an attempt to hasten a Palestinian uprising against the group. Israel should have more faith in the inherent weakness of Hamas's iron-fisted theological rule and its own ineptness in governing while refusing to make peace with Israel. That weakness was in full view in January when more than 100,000 Gazans fled into Egypt through a breach in a border fence.

Unfortunately, the 12-day exodus also allowed Hamas to obtain longer-range rockets of Iranian design, enabling it to hit new targets 10 miles into Israel and reach areas where 200,000 civilians live. Israeli hawks now threaten a "shoah" (holocaust) in Gaza, another sign that tit-for-tat reprisals are a dead end for both Israelis and Palestinians. If Israel's military ends up entering Gaza for long periods to kill Hamas fighters, it only risks another debacle like its 2007 war against Lebanon's radical Hizbullah. The extremists in both camps would then have set back the hopes of each side's majorities for a two-state solution. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others need to patch together a cease-fire. From there, a path might open for Hamas and Israel to come to terms with each other, allowing secure borders.

Israel's long-term solution lies in fully recognizing its post-1967 error of occupying portions of the West Bank. Ending Jewish settlement of Palestinian land would be a first step toward curbing not only Hamas's rockets but also Arab and Iranian enthusiasm to someday use large missiles on the Jewish state.

Israel's restraint in defending itself now against Hamas rockets will give it moral strength to find a solution and avoid Hamas's trap of forcing an overreaction.

Islamic radicals cannot be handed the high road.

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