More than two weeks into the latest round of fighting in Gaza neither Israel nor Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls the territory, have shown any sign of backing off from the confrontation. So far, more than 800 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed, as well as more than 30 soldiers and at least two civilians on the Israeli side. Yet despite the ferocious fighting, the combatants appear no closer to declaring victory than when the conflict began. Instead, it's become increasingly clear the war is devolving into a military stalemate. It's equally clear that the only way to break it is through a diplomatic and political settlement that doesn't involve a return to the pre-war status quo.
Israeli military officials have acknowledged that Hamas is proving a difficult foe to wipe out, as its fighters' equipment and tactics have improved since the last Gaza war of two years ago. Hamas, meanwhile, never had any hope of military victory over Israel, and its ability to cause damage through rocket attacks has been vastly limited by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. Meanwhile, the destruction of innocent life grows increasingly horrific, most pointedly with the strike Thursday that killed 16 at a United Nations-run school that was being used as a shelter by Palestinian civilians.
It is in this context that Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are pushing for a cease fire of about a week to commence with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Sunday. Whether this effort will be successful or not (and initial reactions were not promising), the positions being sketched out in the talks offer at least a plausible path toward a lasting peace that does not result in another such conflict a year or two hence.
The determination on both sides in this conflict should make clear that neither is willing to accept a return to the pre-war status quo. Hamas has said from the beginning that its demand for an end to the blockade that has stifled Gaza's economy and made life miserable for its 1.8 million residents is non-negotiable. Israel, meanwhile, has said its top priority is to dismantle Hamas' military capability to attack its towns and cities with rockets smuggled into the territory country from Syria and Iran and to destroy Hamas' secret tunnels into Israel. Therein lies the basis for a deal: something along the lines of getting Hamas to agree to a transformation of Gaza into an internationally supervised demilitarized zone while requiring Israel to lift its blockade of the territory's ports and border crossings and offering a multi-national aid plan to rebuild the war-torn territory.
This is easier said than done. Israeli officials have been quoted in news reports as being open to something along those lines, though with some major caveats. They are particularly concerned about allowing imports of concrete into Gaza, as Hamas has used it not for civilian reconstruction but to build bunkers and tunnels into Israel. Egypt, whose government is wary of Hamas, has its own concerns about opening a border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai peninsula. That's why an internationally funded and orchestrated relief plan for Gaza is crucial to the prospects for a deal.
Getting Hamas to actually give up its weapons may be the hardest goal to achieve. Hamas has been utterly incapable of providing for the economic, social and political needs of the people it purports to represent, and its only strategy for securing support from Gazans and the international community has been to provoke asymmetrical confrontations with Israel, like this one. Even if it agrees to the terms of a peace accord, Israel would have good reason to doubt its sincerity.
But Israel should also realize by know that it cannot wipe out Hamas militarily, at least not without inflicting an utterly inhuman level of civilian casualties in the process — and likely driving Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank into the arms of even more extreme groups. The alternative is to change the conditions that have made Gazans so desperate that they feel they have nothing to lose. It is not a strategy without risks, but it is the only one that offers any hope that Israel will not find itself fighting this war again and again.
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