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Grasping Gaza

When Israel first unleashed its bombs over Gaza on December 27, it was depicted around the world as a rogue state recklessly igniting an apocalypse. Televised images of warplanes and bloodied Palestinian children inflamed passions in foreign capitals and brought angry crowds into the streets of Europe and the Muslim world. Few beyond Israel’s strongest supporters could see how the main Israeli complaint, the primitive rockets falling on the Negev, could justify such a deadly response. Hopes of Middle East peace seemed all but dead. But that was more than a week ago. Things change fast in the Middle East.

As this newspaper was going to press, cease-fire talks had begun and quickly jumped to an advanced stage. With Washington in pre-inauguration paralysis, the negotiations were led by France, backed closely by Turkey and Egypt. Surprisingly, the trio seemed focused — or so it was presented by France and Israel — on helping Israel to achieve its goals, not simply on bludgeoning Israel to back down, as so often was the case in past Middle East cease-fires. Hamas wanted the talks to begin with its demand to lift the 18-month Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Hamas expected the negotiators to feel pressured by public anger over the innocent civilians killed by Israeli shells. But whatever the public felt, the civilian deaths didn’t drive the negotiators’ agenda. Civilians make up about 25% of deaths in the Gaza conflict, according to United Nations figures cited in European newspapers. By comparison, civilians make up 67% of the dead in America’s Iraq War and were 80% in Russia’s Chechnya wars. The negotiators knew that. They began their talks with Israel’s chief demand, stopping Hamas arms smuggling.

And no wonder. The rockets threatening Israel today are no longer just the homemade Qassam rockets that have fallen for years on Negev communities near the Gaza border, causing property damage but few casualties. Last spring, before Israel and Hamas agreed to a six-month truce, local Gaza metal shops were producing an upgraded Qassam that reached as far as Ashkelon, 10 miles north of Gaza, nearly double their previous range. In the latest conflict, terrorists began firing a new generation of advanced rockets, imported through smuggling tunnels, with far greater power and accuracy than the Gaza-made variety. The new rockets, brought into Gaza during the truce — when Hamas supposedly was pledged to halt arms smuggling — have been regularly striking Ashdod, Israel’s main port and a major chemical storage site, fully 20 miles from Gaza, or halfway to Tel Aviv. And on January 6, as the cease-fire negotiations shifted into high gear, a rocket struck for the first time in Gedera, 25 miles north of Gaza, on the southern outskirts of metropolitan Tel Aviv. That’s no longer terrorist harassment. It’s a strategic threat. Even the French understand that.

Those new rockets are the reason Israel had to go to war when it did. They are the reason that Hamas arms smuggling rose to the top of the cease-fire negotiators’ agenda. They are the reason Egypt was finally forced this month to acknowledge its responsibility for securing its border with Gaza, after years of stonewalling. They are the reason that France and Turkey volunteered to put their troops in harm’s way on the Gaza border, to protect Israel from Hamas terrorism. When push comes to shove, Hamas is the problem, not Israel.

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