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Gaza on the brink

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The escalating exchange of rocket barrages and airstrikes between Israel and the Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip threatens to erupt into an all-out ground war that destabilizes the entire region. The U.S. and its European allies, along with Egypt, Turkey and the United Nations, must do everything possible to nudge the belligerents back from the edge through diplomatic means before events spin completely out of control.

No nation can allow its citizens to be attacked and killed with impunity by a foreign power that fires missiles indiscriminately across its borders at major towns and cities. Over the last week, Hamas has fired more than 800 rockets at Israeli population centers, including, for the first time, the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Three Israelis have been killed in the attacks and more than dozen injured.

In response, the Israeli military has launched more that 200 air strikes targeting top Hamas military commanders and weapons storage and production sites in Gaza, in the process killing or wounding scores of innocent Palestinian civilians, including dozens of women and children. The Israeli government has also called up 75,000 reserves and has begun massing troops along the border with Gaza in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Israel has every right to defend itself from the threat posed by Hamas, which appears to have deliberately provoked a fight it must know it has no chance of winning militarily. Yet Hamas' leaders seem indifferent to the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians their actions have invited; indeed, they may even welcome the growing body count as a propaganda victory. The deliberate manner in which have put their own citizens at risk by locating military forces and equipment in civilian areas shows the utter ruthlessness and immorality of which they are capable.

But while Israel could probably make short work of its enemies if it ordered its troops massed along the border to invade Gaza, the respite from Hamas rocket fire would likely only be temporary and the consequences over the long run could turn out nearly as disastrous for the victors as for the vanquished. Hamas, no doubt, knows this.

President Obama has vigorously supported Israel's right to self-defense. But he has also cautioned Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu that an invasion that resulted in thousands of Palestinian dead and wounded would jeopardize Israel's support among its Western allies, a point that was reiterated on Monday by British Foreign Minister William Houge. As the wrongly injured party, Israel enjoys overwhelming support in the U.S., but that could evaporate if it expanded the war in a way viewed as disproportionate to the threat.

Moreover, a ground war almost certainly would work to Hamas' advantage by undermining Israel's increasingly tenuous ties to Egypt and Turkey, both of which are ruled by Islamist governments sensitive to domestic public opinion sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogen have both called for a cease-fire under the auspices of the Arab League and the United Nations to head off a further escalation of the conflict.

Hamas, for its part, clearly feels empowered by the political changes that have brought Islamist governments to power across the region as a result of the Arab Spring. It may well believe it can press an advantage that it didn't have with respect to the autocratic, U.S.-supported regimes that were in power during Israel's 2009 invasion of Gaza. That may make it more intransigent than ever in its demands for Israeli territorial and political concessions.

Hamas clearly views the changed political landscape as an opportunity to back Israel into a corner from which it cannot escape without alienating the newly emerging moderate Islamist governments, and it apparently is willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent Gaza men, women and children in order to isolate the Jewish state.

Public opinion in Israel, meanwhile, has generally been supportive of Prime Minister Netanyahu's get-tough response to Hamas' provocations, though it might become less so if the conflict expanded into ground fighting that killed hundreds of Israeli soldiers. But Israelis shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security that their troops can halt the rocket attacks or that their sophisticated anti-missile defenses can protect them from harm. There is no military solution to the current conflict that would break cycle of violence and retribution that has dogged the region for so long. Israel's friends can help it most by reminding its leaders of that sad history and helping them ratchet down the current round of fighting toward a cease fire sooner rather than later.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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