The five-hour cease fire between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip was the calm before the storm. Hamas rockets began raining down on Israel at the moment the United Nations-requested lull ended on Thursday afternoon. Israel waited a bit longer — three hours or so — before resuming air strikes but then followed with a long-anticipated ground offensive aimed at eliminating so-called "terror tunnels" that allow militants access to Israeli territory. For the moment, Egyptian efforts to broker a truce appear to have amounted to nothing, and the prospects for a more permanent peace appear dim, indeed.
Israel had amassed thousands of troops on its border in anticipation of a ground offensive, and the military announced that had begun shortly before 11 p.m. local time, with the goal to "establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security without continuous indiscriminate terror." Hamas had shown no inclination to stop militants from firing thousands of rockets at Israeli towns and cities, and early Thursday morning it celebrated the incursion of what appear to have been a group of heavily armed militants into Israel just a mile from a kibbutz before they were beaten back by Israeli air power. High-ranking Israeli and Palestinian officials were in Cairo on Thursday, but efforts by the government there were unable to stop a repeat of the 2012 Israeli invasion and occupation of the territory.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure from right-wing members of his cabinet to destroy Hamas once and for all, even though that goal probably is not achievable. For their part, Hamas leaders face mounting pressures from more extremist Islamist rivals in Gaza not to back down from confronting Israel militarily, even though its chances of prevailing are virtually nil. With the hardening of positions on both sides, officials in Israel and Gaza have become hostage to events rather than shaping them to advance a clear and consistent strategy.
Israel insists — quite correctly — that no state can allow its citizens to be attacked and killed with impunity by a hostile government. Over the last week its air force has conducted strikes against Hamas leaders, command centers and arms depots that have killed or wounded more than 1,500 Palestinian civilians as well as militants. Yet an Israeli military spokesman conceded Wednesday that airstrikes alone wouldn't be able to stop the rocket fire from Gaza.
Hamas has amassed a formidable arsenal of home-made Qassam rockets as well as several thousand longer-range Syrian- and Iranian-made missiles capable of hitting targets as far away as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It says the attacks won't stop until Israel frees hundreds of militants and ends its blockade of Gaza, which has strangled the territory's economy and made life miserable for the 1.8 million people living there.
There's little doubt that Israel's ground invasion will quickly overwhelm the defenders and destroy most of the 5,000 or so rockets still believed to be in the group's arsenal. But then what? The last thing Israel needs is to get bogged down in a messy occupation that could lead to more civilian casualties and a loss of international support. Yet a quick withdrawal that leaves Hamas in control of the territory would allow it to claim victory and might even help restore its sagging reputation among Palestinians frustrated by its corruption and inability to deliver basic services or prosperity in the territory.
And while it's unlikely Israel can stamp out Hamas entirely, it wouldn't be in the country's interest to do so even if it could. If Gaza descended into chaos as a result, the power vacuum thus created would quickly be filled by radical Islamist groups like Islamic Jihad that are even more hostile to Israel than Hamas. Empowering such groups not only would make the rocket problem worse but would also risk destabilizing the more moderate Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank as well.
However this invasion plays out in the days and weeks ahead, it is unlikely to produce a permanent peace and security for either the Israelis or the Palestinians. The collapse of the U.S.-led peace process demonstrates the unwillingness of either side to make the concessions necessary for a lasting accord. Instead, Israel and Hamas have backed each other into a corner from which neither side can escape without appearing to bend to the other's will, and neither Israel nor Hamas appears to have any interest in doing that.
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