In August 2005 and again in 2007, we visited the region of southern Israel that includes this embattled Israeli border town. Taken together, the trips helped us define the historical and military context for Israel's current action in Gaza.
Our 2005 visit to Israel took place during the "disengagement" period, when Israel painfully uprooted its military and all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made the decision to leave in spite of significant domestic opposition. We remember how divided Israeli society was, with critics defiantly brandishing orange protest ribbons from their cars. Mr. Sharon's goal, however, was an international show of good faith to kick-start a moribund peace process by giving the Palestinians what they asked for: full control of Gaza.
The plan collapsed. Israel's good intentions were never reciprocated. Instead of building roads, bridges, schools and industry, Hamas and other terrorists wasted millions turning Gaza into an armory. The already flimsy notion that Palestinian terrorism was a consequence of Israeli occupation -- an article of faith among those currently decrying Israel's "aggression" -- blew up along with the 7,000 indiscriminate rockets Palestinian terrorists began to launch into Israel.
By the time we returned to the border area in 2007, formerly sleepy southern Israeli towns like Sderot were gripped by fear. Each day, scores of rockets pounded the region. It reminded us of how life was paralyzed in the Washington metropolitan area when just a single sniper fired random shots at civilians. But southern Israel was far worse. We remember Israeli families from Sderot describing how every facet of their lives was consumed by the "15-second rule": Each time a rocket was fired from Gaza, the Israeli government sounded a siren indicating 15 seconds to take cover. We were told by Israelis those tasks as simple as taking a shower or stepping outside to grab a newspaper felt like a game of Russian roulette. We met families whose children had lost the ability to speak, and who no longer had control of their basic bodily functions -- due to the profound and ever-present fear.
Prior to military action, Israel tried a number of other options to stop the rockets, all to no avail. Israel pleaded with Palestinian terror groups to stop their attacks. Israel raised numerous complaints at the United Nations that fell on deaf ears. Israel imposed a blockade of Gaza to deprive Hamas terrorists of the rockets and weapons being used to attack Israel. Israel pressed Egypt to cut down on smuggling tunnels used to deliver rockets and weapons to terrorists. And most recently, Israel worked with Egypt to broker a six-month cease-fire with Hamas.
As Israel negotiated for peace, Hamas built up its weapons supply, acquiring longer-range, more powerful rockets, which are now paralyzing almost 1 million Israelis. Israel's decision to go to war came late last month when Hamas declared that it would not renew the Egyptian-brokered, six-month cease-fire (a cease-fire, it should be noted, that Hamas frequently violated and was urged by Egypt to restore).
In any armed conflict, both sides are obligated by international law to seek to minimize civilian casualties. At a time when far too many civilians are falling victim in this conflict, we urge adherence to this essential principle just as we encourage all sides to ensure that humanitarian relief reaches civilians in Gaza. What distinguishes the two sides, however, is their very aim. While Israel targets military combatants, Hamas aims to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible. Hamas, after all, is one of the Middle East's most notorious terrorist outfits. Since its inception in 1987, it has worked systematically to fulfill the goal laid out in its charter: the destruction of Israel. During the last Intifada, Hamas claimed credit for 52 suicide bombings that killed 288 Israelis, according to Israeli government figures.
A culture that celebrates death is only too happy to sacrifice its own people for the sake of rallying world support. In the heat of war, Hamas is holding true to its indisputable record as it launches rockets from neighborhoods, schools, markets and mosques. This is in stark contrast with Israelis, who drop leaflets and make phone calls to Palestinian civilians in targeted areas, alerting the civilians, but forfeiting the element of surprise.
Like most Americans, we identify strongly with Israel's ongoing, elusive quest to achieve peace and security in a dangerous part of the world. We recognize that by arming and training Hamas, Iran has made this latest Israel-Hamas war a key front in its effort to remake the region in its own radical image.
America would never sit still if terrorists were lobbing missiles across our border into Texas or Montana; and just as we assert our right to defend ourselves, Israel has every right to protect its own citizens from the implacable foes on its borders. Support for Israel in her time of need, from both Democrats and Republicans, is not just the logical choice. It is both a strategic and moral imperative.
House Republican Whip Eric Cantor represents Virginia's 7th Congressional District. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer represents Maryland's 5th Congressional District.