Less than a year after its disengagement from Gaza, Israel has become deeply re-engaged, in a sharp escalation of fighting that could ignite a third intifada. The proximate cause was a Palestinian guerrilla attack against an Israeli army base, in which two soldiers were killed and one was taken prisoner. In response Israel launched a furious assault on the entire population of Gaza, destroying its only energy plant, which left 700,000 people without power, and seizing more than two dozen Hamas elected officials. Israel’s leading liberal daily, Ha’aretz, warned that “the government is losing its reason…arresting people to use as bargaining chips is the act of a gang, not of a state.” Amnesty International condemned the attacks against civilian infrastructure as a war crime, and the UN’s Relief and Works Agency warned that Gaza is “on the brink of a public health disaster.”
In an exercise of selective memory, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns defended Israel, saying, “Let’s remember who started this. It was the outrageous actions of Hamas in violating Israel’s sovereignty, in taking the soldier hostage.” In fact, the current cycle of violence was set off by weeks of Israeli shellings that culminated in the killing of eight Palestinian civilians on a Gaza beach. On a deeper level, the violence arises from the Israeli strategy of unilateralism, in which even the pretense of negotiations is abandoned and Israel alone decides its final borders, while maintaining control over the territories through closures, military assaults and assassination. After Hamas came to power in January in the Arab world’s most democratic elections, Israel and the United States tried to provoke the government’s collapse by cutting off aid and tax revenues, even though Hamas maintained its yearlong cease-fire and its officials repeatedly declared it could accept a two-state solution or at least a long-term truce. Far from leading to Hamas’s demise, the economic strangulation infuriated Palestinians, convincing many that the United States and Israel care nothing about democracy. After the beach killings, popular outrage finally led Hamas’s military wing to call off its cease-fire.
The latest Gaza clashes (followed by Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers along Israel’s border with Lebanon and Israel’s first invasion of southern Lebanon in six years) highlight the bankruptcy of unilateralism and military solutions. There will be no end to the violence until Israel agrees to negotiate with the democratically elected Palestinian leadership. A short-term solution to the current crisis could involve a mutual cease-fire and prisoner exchange, with an Israeli pledge to halt assassinations, military incursions and economic closures, matched by a Palestinian commitment to end rocket attacks on Israel. In the long term, Israel must abandon its obsession with territorial annexation and the “separation wall” and agree to negotiate along the lines already accepted long ago by the Palestinians and the world community: a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, an end to all settlements, a fair division of Jerusalem and a just resolution to the refugee issue. Arab League nations have offered diplomatic relations with Israel if it accepts these conditions. If Israel doesn’t, the bloodshed in Gaza will spread, and yet another generation of Israelis and Palestinians will suffer the consequences.