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The Battle for Gaza

The terrorist attack that took three lives in the Israeli resort town of Eilat last Monday was an atrocity, and the organization that plotted and executed it, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, deserves every punishment the Israeli military can mete out. Bombing a suburban bakery is not an act of war. It is a crime against humanity.

For the innocent victims and their families, whole worlds have been lost, and we grieve with them as brothers and sisters. For the nation of Israel, Monday’s events are a reminder of the threat that still lurks just beyond its borders, however long the lull between atrocities.

No less urgently, the bombing must drive home the high stakes for all involved — bystanders as well as combatants — in the Palestinian civil war now under way on the streets of Gaza. Two main factions in the Palestinian national movement, Fatah and Hamas, are engaged in a deadly struggle over the character of Palestinian society and the nature of its relationship with its Israeli neighbor. However distasteful the events before us, however strong the temptation to dismiss the fighting as a blood feud between two bands of scoundrels, Israelis and their friends around the world must recognize that they have a strong stake in the outcome. This is a fight with good guys and bad guys.

The battle for Gaza pits Fatah, a secular nationalist movement, against Hamas, a religious movement for Islamic purification. Fatah, founded four decades ago by Yasser Arafat and dedicated to “liberating Palestine” from Zionism, committed itself formally in 1988 to seeking Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. Hamas arose at the same time that Fatah took its historic turn, dedicated to resisting Palestinian compromise and continuing the struggle for Israel’s eradication.

The path from that day to this has not been a straight one. Many crimes have been committed, many lives shattered, much faith lost. After all the rivers of blood that have been spilled, Israelis today find it more difficult than ever to believe in the possibility of Palestinian good will and coexistence. Palestinians, alas, find it no less difficult. Among Israelis and their friends, it’s become fashionable to see the ongoing chaos in post-disengagement Gaza as proof of some native Palestinian inability to forge a decent society and live as good neighbors. Among Israel’s growing hordes of enemies, it’s become all the rage — that’s the right word — to demonize the Jewish state as an irredeemably racist oppressor. The two caricatures are mirror images of each other. Anger fuels mistrust, sparks revenge, kills hope.

Israelis reply, with justice, that the mainstream of Israeli society has embraced the principle of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in two states. Every Israeli government since 1993 has committed itself, with greater or lesser enthusiasm, to a negotiated peace. They have been met, they complain, with obstinacy, double messages and murder from the other side. And they have wondered aloud when the Palestinians will make a clear choice for peace. When, more than one Israeli leader has asked, will the Palestinians’ would-be peacemakers confront the extremists and mad bombers among them and establish the rule of law and the primacy of diplomacy? Israel, it’s recalled, once faced a nascent civil war with its own armed irredentists; it put its foot down in a 1948 gun-battle over a dissident arms ship, the Altalena. When, Israelis have asked repeatedly, will the Palestinians meet their own Altalena?

Now that battle is before us. The sides are not as clear-cut as moralists might wish. The ideological struggle over the future of Palestine is mixed in with petty gang wars over turf, power, jobs and spoils. No outcome, not even a clear-cut Fatah victory, will result in immediate or comfortable Israeli-Palestinian peace. Still, one side holds out the possibility of peace. The other promises only endless war.

We do not wish the Palestinians a continued agony of civil bloodshed. It would be far better for all if the factions could join together in a unity government; if Hamas committed itself to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas; if the Islamists accepted openly — not with nods and winks — the bedrock principles laid down by the world community, including recognition of Israel’s legitimacy and rejection of terrorism. Until that day, we can only hope for the victory of the good guys.

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