- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Only a few days ago, Bethlehem’s Christians were celebrating the Nativity where it occurred. It was the merriest Christmas the city had seen in many a year. Manger Square was full to overflowing, the shops and hotels were busy, and the celebrations were watched over by Palestinian and Israeli troops working together. The good will was palpable even in the news photos.

It was a Christmas-card view of what peace on Earth might look like in a part of the world where peace has been all too elusive. For on the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas still holds precarious sway, and there the vision of a two-state solution for this seemingly endless conflict between Arab and Jew begins to take shape, or at least gets lip service.

Forty-five miles away, Gaza is something else. There the jihadists are in uneasy control, Hamas having staged a bloody coup against Mahmoud Abbas’ authority more than a year ago. Even while the bands were marching in Bethlehem, rockets continued to fall on Israeli cities all along the border.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was going to herald peace in the Middle East, good will toward men. Thousands of Israeli families who had made lives in the Gaza Strip were dragged out of their homes and synagogues by their own army, leaving everything behind they had built over decades. The resisters warned that giving up Gaza would only lead to war - a warning that proved prophetic. As an earlier prophet named Zechariah foretold, Ashkelon will be fearful, and Gaza sorrowful.

During the last year alone, the loose-knit militias that run Gaza have fired some 3,000 rockets and mortars across the border, most just setting fields and farms afire, but some finding their mark. At last count, some 270 Israeli civilians had been injured and the death toll stood at four.

That total doesn’t count the number of Gazans killed in the internecine fighting that has marked Hamas’ uneasy rule in Gaza, which has brought its people little but death and deprivation. The Israelis have responded to Hamas’ enmity by imposing a partial blockade on Gaza and launching limited air strikes - to little or no avail.

At one point, both sides agreed to an informal truce, but it was observed largely in the breach, and Hamas let it lapse a little more than a week ago. The rocket attacks have been mounting ever since, and the Israelis appeared powerless to stop them, which only encouraged more of them.

It’s not as if Hamas’ attacks were prompted by Israel’s occupation of Gaza. That is over. The only remaining Israeli in Gaza is Gilad Shalit, the Israeli sergeant taken hostage during a cross-border raid two years ago - if he’s still alive. No, these rockets are being fired in protest against an Israeli-occupied Israel, and they are but the harbinger of what awaits the Israelis if they think they can withdraw their way to security. They’ve tried that - both in Lebanon and Gaza - and all they’ve accomplished is to bring the front lines closer to their ever narrower heartland.

The only surprising thing about the large-scale Israeli response in Gaza over the weekend is that it should have taken so long - and that the notoriously voluble Israelis were able to achieve surprise for once. Why did the Israelis finally rouse themselves? To quote what American presidential candidate Barack Obama said when he visited Israel earlier this year: “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything to stop that, and would expect Israel to do the same thing.” It finally did.

But what happens after the air strikes? If the Israelis aren’t prepared to destroy enough of Hamas’ war-making capacity to deter it from continuing to attack Israeli cities at will, they will have succeeded only in inflaming and encouraging their enemies.

Air strikes alone may not be enough to achieve a decisive victory. That was the mistake the Israelis made originally in Lebanon, where they fought an inconclusive war in 2006 against Hezbollah, another guerrilla group sponsored by the Iranians.

In war, as an American general named Douglas MacArthur once noted, there is no substitute for victory. But what would victory in this war look like? Certainly not an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, for neither Israelis nor Egyptians want responsibility for that nest of unrest, and a lot of Palestinians aren’t crazy about what’s going on there, either.

Jerusalem’s goal seems much more modest: a revived truce, formal or informal or just vaguely understood, that would be honored at least in part for a while. In short, the same kind of understanding Israel reached with Hezbollah, which no longer seems interested in attacking Israel - at least for now. Israel’s objective in Gaza would seem to be similar: just a little peace and quiet along its southern border. The great advantage of modest goals is that, unlike grand pronouncements and revolutionary changes, they might be attainable.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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