The “long-term” cease-fire between Israel and Hamas announced this week — assuming that it holds — is welcome first and foremost because it promises an end to a conflict that disproportionately has cost the lives of innocent civilians.
Israel and the Islamist group Hamas have clashed before, but this conflict has been particularly prolonged and bloody. Even if you accept Israel’s right to respond to rocket attacks on its territory — and we do — the human toll has been horrific.
In nearly two months of fighting (punctuated by temporary cease-fires), more than 2,200 people were killed. Most were Palestinians, including large numbers of civilians, many of them children.
Sixty-nine Israelis died, all but four of them soldiers. Israeli casualties from rocket attacks were limited by a missile-defense system known as Iron Dome.
Had Israel and Hamas not agreed to a cease-fire midwifed by Egypt, there could have been even more carnage, especially if Israel decided again to launch a ground operation in Gaza. No matter how “surgical,” such an operation would have cost more innocent lives.
An end to the bloodshed would be a relief even if nothing else were accomplished, but it’s possible that the agreement will also improve the quality of life for Gazans. Palestinians — not just supporters of Hamas — have insisted that a cease-fire must be accompanied by some relief from Israeli-imposed restrictions on travel and trade that they say have turned the area into a prison.
Israel reportedly has agreed to deliver humanitarian aid and building materials for use in what Secretary of State John Kerry called “a major reconstruction initiative.” Talks on other issues, such as the opening of an airport in Gaza, are to take place after the cease-fire has been in place for a month.
Welcome as such developments are, they could easily be aborted by another outbreak of violence. The best insurance policy against a repetition of this summer’s conflict is a revival of the negotiations on a two-state solution, which collapsed this spring despite intense diplomatic efforts by the United States.
Although representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority apparently made progress on several issues, each side took provocative actions. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a promise to release a group of Palestinian prisoners. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas angered Israel by filing applications for Palestinian membership in several international agencies.
At first glance, an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority might seem irrelevant to Gaza. It continues to be controlled by Hamas, which, unlike Mr. Abbas’ government in the West Bank, refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist or embrace a two-state solution. Yet Hamas this year endorsed a “unity government” appointed by Mr. Abbas, strengthening his hand in negotiations with Israel.
If Mr. Abbas were able to point to progress toward a Palestinian state that included Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas might come under pressure to modify its position or risk losing popular support. If Israel wants to marginalize Hamas, it should talk to Mr. Abbas and refrain from actions that undermine the peace process, notably the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Goaded into violence by Hamas’ rocket attacks, Israel destroyed much of the enemy’s infrastructure during the past two months, and killed some of its leaders. But that isn’t the best way to counter Hamas’ rejectionism.
Progress toward a two-state solution and an improvement in the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank would make it harder for Hamas to argue that armed struggle is the only way forward for the Palestinian people. And that would make Israel more secure.