The "long-term" cease-fire between Israel and Hamas announced on Tuesday — assuming that it holds — is welcome first and foremost because it promises an end to a conflict that disproportionately cost the lives of innocent civilians. Israel and the Islamist group Hamas have clashed before, but this conflict was particularly prolonged and bloody. Even if one accepts Israel's right to respond to rocket attacks on its territory — and we do — the human toll of this conflict was 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. Some victims died as they huddled in schools or other supposed shelters, and after one explosion near a school, the United States publicly demanded that Israel "do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties." Sixty-nine Israelis have 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 once 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 Tuesday's agreement will also improve the quality of life for Gazans. Palestinians — not just supporters of Hamas — have been insisting 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. Reportedly Israel has agreed to the delivery of humanitarian aid and building materials for use in what Secretary of State John F. Kerry called "a major reconstruction initiative." Negotiations 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, and 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 Abbas' government in the West Bank, refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist or embrace a two-state solution. Yet Hamas earlier this year endorsed a "unity government" appointed by Abbas, strengthening his hand in negotiations with Israel.
If Abbas were able to point to progress toward a Palestinian state that included both 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 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 last two months, and also assassinated some of its leaders. But that isn't the only or even 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 alike 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.
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