When Hamas decided to initiate rocket attacks on Israel, it invited the furious reprisal that began earlier this month. Three times since 2006, Israel has responded to aerial assaults on its citizens with fierce counter-attacks, and each time the fighting has come to an inconclusive end that allows its enemies to replenish their arsenals and start planning for the next round.
For that reason, Israel’s Security Cabinet unanimously rejected a U.S. proposal for a ceasefire on Friday, though Israel agreed to a 12-hour pause for Saturday. The images from the funerals of Israeli troops are heart-rending. The scenes of horror and destruction in Gaza, gut-wrenching. No one could wish for the people of Gaza to endure prolonged misery.
But it was Hamas that wished for the fighting. First, by attacking Israel, and then by rejecting an Egyptian ceasefire proposal because it wanted its own narrow demands addressed first. That included lifting border restrictions and the release of dozens of former prisoners Israel rearrested in a crackdown on the West Bank after the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers.
Throughout the fighting, Hamas has used the civilian population of Gaza as hostages. That is one big reason the terrorist group has worn out its welcome there. It uses populated areas to fire deadly rockets into Israel. U.N. officials have also said they twice found Hamas using abandoned schools to conceal dozens of rockets.
The refusal to agree to a cease-fire more than one week ago, along with the discovery of an extensive network of tunnels leading into Israel, triggered the Israeli ground assault and the determination of its government to achieve a twofold aim: Destroy the tunnels and degrade Hamas’ arsenal to render it ineffective.
Without that, Hamas would be exposed as dangerous and useless. Its control of Gaza has only worsened the lives and prospects of Palestinians who live there.
Israel must be allowed to crush the threat from Hamas, not just for a few months or a year (the last ceasefire took effect in November 2012), but for the foreseeable future. The right of self-defense is not negotiable.
While it is putting an end to Hamas, Israel must also do a better job of avoiding civilian casualties. As mentioned earlier, Hamas thrives amid reports of the deaths of women and children under Israeli attacks. It’s an integral part of Hamas’ strategy. Thus, Israel has both a moral necessity to avoid civilian casualties and an enormous self-interest in ensuring that mistakes resulting in more civilian killings don’t happen.
Marginalizing Hamas and reducing its support among Palestinians is another strategic imperative. As long as Hamas is seen as an effective standard-bearer for Palestinian aspirations, it will draw grassroots support. It’s doing a pretty good job by itself of alienating Palestinians, especially those in Gaza who understood that provoking another round of fighting with Israel would invite disaster. But Israel can hasten the erosion of Hamas’ popular support by helping to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, has become an effective partner in keeping the peace.
The ultimate challenge for Israel is to help provide a better life for Palestinians in the West Bank, giving them a glimpse of a more-peaceful future — including the return of Mr. Abbas’ group to power in Gaza. That, of course, requires victory over Hamas and an end to its destructive power.