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Commentary: Can the ending change as Israel and Hamas play out an old script?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 29, 2008 - If you allow yourself some perspective as you view the current Hamas-Israel confrontation, it becomes clear that it was not only predictable, but had happened before and that it follows, unfortunately, a tattered, heavily annotated, script.

First, the six-month truce between Hamas and Israel already began breaking down in October as Hamas militants resumed both bombarding Israel with rockets and mortar rounds and dispatching terror missions over the border. Israel retaliated with air and targeted ground strikes into Gaza, a tit for tat that continued at a relative low levels of engagement until Dec. 27 when it began its massive air response to an earlier Hamas bombardment.

Second, the Israelis, predictably, claimed that they had shown great patience, but, finally, had to take what they deemed necessary measures to put an end to the incessant bombardment of their southern towns and population, only targeting Hamas or Hamas-related installations and assiduously avoiding civilian casualties. They also called up reserves and massed armored units along the Gaza frontier, possibly for a ground incursion.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, appearing on various media venues, argued that Israel could not indefinitely be expected to absorb Hamas' attacks and was hence justified in attacking Hamas' strategic and logistical centers. The Bush administration agreed, and the Obama camp demurred, leaving the White House to make the call.

And third, also predictably, the Palestinian media -- both Gaza and West Bank -- decried the Israeli attacks, calling them "massacres" and charging Israel with "genocidal" intent. Unverified totals of 300 deaths and 1,500 casualties from the Israeli attacks were circulated by Hamas and its friendly press and widely accepted by media around the world. Demonstrations against Israel were held in various European and Middle East locales, along with angry denunciations of Israel from several official quarters. It should be noted that only a few official sources mentioned the Hamas rocketry as a possible cause of the attacks, and fewer still called for reciprocal restraint from both sides.

If the current confrontation only follows a well-rehearsed script, which it does in its externals, then, as has happened before, it will subside (however violently) and yet another truce will be reluctantly agreed to by the parties, all to await the next, equally inconclusive, confrontation. This need not, however, be the future, because there are elements in the current situation that suggest alternative paths. Three questions indicate possible directions.


One: Why now? Why did the Hamas militants choose to abrogate the truce and court Israeli retaliation? Because Hamas, unlike Fatah (which rules the West Bank), sees itself as still at war with Israel and can therefore unilaterally call a truce whenever it is so inclined -- and the Israelis have never refused a truce -- and call it off at will. Which is, in effect, what it did in October when its stock of rockets, mortar rounds and other munitions had been replenished during the first part of the truce.

At least one Hamas source also indicated that Christmas was a good time to fire the rockets since that would both disrupt celebrations in Bethlehem, as well send a reminder to the incoming Obama administration that at least Gaza and Hamas -- a significant part of the Palestinian equation -- had to be taken into consideration when Sen. Hillary Clinton turns to Middle East peacemaking. It's not too far-fetched to suggest that Hamas wanted a massive Israeli attack and heavy Palestinian casualties to make Western peacemaking more difficult and, if possible, to foment even greater Arab and Muslim hostility toward Israel.


Two: Can Israel bring Hamas to heel by massive force? Hardly likely, since it hasn't worked before, either in Gaza, or the west Bank, or Lebanon. The present course will create more casualties, more resentment and more resistance.

Gaza is one of the world's most densely populated areas, and the more Hamas is attacked, the more it gets to play the martyr and the Gazans are seen as victims of Israeli criminal assault. Street by street fighting in Gaza can only be a nightmarish resort.

One would have thought that Livni and Netanyahu and the senior Israeli political elite would have learned by now that brute force gains little unless you obtain the total surrender of your enemy, and that has not been possible given the dispersed, chaotic, fractured and politically splintered nature of Palestinian/Arab society. One thing is for sure: Hamas will not be coaxed away from its hard line, since its very existence depends on unremitting hostility to Israel. Consequently, unless Israel is willing to risk a bloody war on Gazan streets, a change in Gaza will only come about when its environment forces the Gazans to change.


Three: Where to go from here? Probably some military response will be needed, including the targeting of missile and artillery sites, as well as continued restriction on movement between Gaza and Israel. Invasion should be ruled out, for obvious reasons.

Most promising is the possibility that a combination of restraint on Hamas bombers and investment in continued economic and social development in the West Bank can begin to have impact on Gazans, who live in extreme privation. (The West Bank, paradoxically, appears to be one of the few areas in the Middle East experiencing an economic boom.)

The point is to deprive Hamas of its ideological allies in the West Bank and elsewhere in the region, something that will not only require a more peaceful (if politically chaotic) Iraq, an Iran intelligently (rather than obtusely) confronted by the West, and an Egypt persuaded to shut down the tunnels and other bypasses through which arms, rockets, money and trained terrorists flow into Gaza. All this will be part of the Obama administration's Middle Eastern set of challenges -- doable, I think, also given, maybe after February, a pragmatic rather than a sectarian-driven Israeli government.

Then there's Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas in seeking the destruction of Israel. If the Turks are successful in mediating a return of the Golan Heights to Syria, a possibility this year because it doesn't need Palestinian consent, a condition of that return might well be a Syrian willingness to defang its Hezbollah client and turn it to domestic Lebanese politics rather than attacks on Israel.

Gaza, then, offers dangers as well as possibilities, and I hope it turns out to be the latter.

Victor T. Le Vine is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Washington University.