Friday, 14 May 2021

For the Sake of Peace, Israel Must Rout Hamas

Credit... Yonatan Sindel/FLASH 90, via Associated Press

Opinion Columnist

As of this writing, terrorists in Gaza — the word “terrorist” fits people who take indiscriminate aim at civilians to achieve political goals — have fired some 1,750 rockets at Israel since Monday.

That’s a number worth pausing over, and not just because it has had the effect of overwhelming Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense. Gaza is often said to be sealed off and utterly destitute. Yet Hamas, which rules Gaza, seems not to have had too much trouble amassing this kind of arsenal, or too many qualms employing it in a way it knew was sure to incur a heavy Israeli response.

The usual rule in life is that if you throw the first punch you can’t complain if you’re counterpunched. The test of Western policy and public opinion is whether they will let Hamas break this rule.

More views on the conflict in the Middle East

That’s a test the Biden administration has so far passed: Both the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have issued statements stressing that “Israel has a right to defend itself.” Good. It’s more than can be said for progressives such as Bernie Sanders, who blamed “the irresponsible actions of government-allied right-wing extremists in Jerusalem” for the fighting without adding a word of condemnation for Hamas.

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Now let’s hope the administration’s attitude lasts. The tactics of Hamas are to house its arsenals in schools and mosques, set up headquarters in the basement of hospitals and fire its missiles from sites next to crowded apartment buildings and hotels housing foreign journalists.

The idea is either to keep Israel from returning fire or, if it does, reap the propaganda benefits from televised and tweeted pictures of wrecked buildings and human casualties and “disproportionate” Israeli-Palestinian death counts that obscure the fact that one side is doing what it can to protect civilian lives and the other side is doing what it can to endanger them.

The cynicism is breathtaking. It ought to be widely condemned as a form of terrorism against ordinary Palestinians, whose visible suffering is as central to Hamas’s global purposes as is the suffering of Israeli civilians to its domestic purposes. But if past experience is anything to go by, an errant Israeli mortar or missile will mistakenly hit a civilian target, generating furious claims that Israel has committed war crimes, along with intense diplomatic pressure for Jerusalem to “de-escalate” and seek a cease-fire — at least until the next round of fighting.

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In that case, the result would be a political victory for Hamas, achieved not only at a heavy price in Palestinian lives but also at the expense of Palestinian moderates, who’d look like weaklings or fools for opposing the strategy of violent “resistance.”

What can’t be emphasized enough, especially among those who think of themselves as pro-Palestinian: If you want a Palestinian state to exist and succeed, you must also want Hamas to be humiliated and defeated. Hamas’s sole aim for over 30 years has been to turn a difficult, but potentially negotiable, conflict into a nonnegotiable, zero-sum holy war. That strategy has to be proved a loser before Palestinian politics can move in a better direction.

By the same token, if you’d like a more moderate cast of Israeli leaders, then the last thing you’d want is for Hamas to emerge emboldened and essentially unscathed in the current round of fighting. No Israeli government of any ideological stripe is going to concede territory for a Palestinian state that’s likely to look like a larger version of Gaza today: one that terrorizes its neighbors while tyrannizing its people.

Nor is the Israeli public going to pay much heed to hectoring critics in the West who, like Sanders, somehow think that, for Hamas, a legal case involving an ugly eviction effort in East Jerusalem was anything more than a pretext to start a war while jockeying for political advantage against its Palestinian rivals in Fatah. 

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