Hamas Bears Lion’s Share of Blame for Israel-Gaza Tensions

All parties involved share some responsibility for the crisis in Gaza. But Hamas is by far the biggest villain.

Eyad Baba / AP Photo

When fighting flares over Gaza, world leaders and pundits scamper to the same old and feeble solution: a ceasefire. But that “magic” formula has never worked well and won’t succeed now, at least for long. There is only one path to arrest the latest Gaza killings and reduce risks of future bloodshed, and that is for all parties involved to stop blaming everyone else, and start looking at themselves.

There is plenty of responsibility for bloodshed all around, especially with Hamas, and all parties have to see what they’ve been doing wrong before there is a chance of doing things right. Remaining blind to one’s own sins not only guarantees more deaths in Gaza and Israel, but ramps up the odds of new Gaza warfare further inflaming an already burning Middle East.

Hamas bears the lion’s share of the blame. Hamas and its friends fired off 600 rockets last year and 700 already in 2012, before Israel escalated its military operations. Hamas’s leaders have a million excuses about who started shooting whom first, and how, claiming, for example, that radical groups it couldn’t control fired most of the rockets. But a month and a half ago, Hamas claimed all the credit again. Whichever terrorist group actually did the shooting, Hamas had to know full well that if rocket fire against southern Israel continued, the Israelis would not put up with it and would fire back in spades—and that Gazan civilians would be killed. Knowing that puts the responsibility for those deaths on Hamas. It’s hard to escape the thought that some of Hamas’s leaders even revel in displaying Gazan casualties as a way of scoring propaganda points against Israel, at the expense of their own dead.

Hamas is smart enough to understand that Israeli leaders can’t cut them any more slack. Sure, even Prime Minister Netanyahu (let’s call him Bibi) understands that Hamas is more cautious than in the past, since, as a government collecting taxes and building assets, it now has a lot to lose. But Israel has little choice but to put the worst interpretation on Hamas’s actions, for an obvious reason: Hamas pledges to destroy the state of Israel. Hamas-lovers lose all credibility when they ignore that fact.

The Palestinian blame does not end with Hamas in Gaza, but runs to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. For sure, Bibi’s government has made peace prospects ever dimmer. But that, too, is not without cause. Bibi came to power in the wake of two failed Israeli peace efforts—efforts that Palestinian leaders rejected. These offers were made by Ehud Barak at the end of the Clinton administration, and by Ehud Olmert at the end of George W. Bush’s term. Olmert offered the Palestinians almost all of what they had been demanding—a state with safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza, a capital in East Jerusalem, a readjustment of Israeli settlements and 1967 borders, etc. When the plans were rejected, first by Yasir Arafat and then by current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli politics turned sharply rightward on peace efforts.

During this time, President Abbas has done little or nothing to prepare the Palestinian people for a peace settlement with a Jewish state of Israel. His people say he’s not politically strong enough to try, but that’s true for all leaders faced with difficult compromises with adversaries and enemies. Some step up to the plate with courage, and others, like Abbas, run away. How much courage would it take for him to ask that the Olmert proposal be put back on the table? He’s never come close to doing this, and the cost of doing so would not be great. In fact, he would benefit by putting the onus of political pressure back on Bibi. So when the blame is apportioned, Abbas and his fellow West Bank leaders have a good deal to answer for.

Bibi bears his share of the blame, as well. He would be very foolish to think that he could keep things calm with the Gazans and West Bankers without a serious peace process, and with ever-expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It just makes no sense to think that Palestinians will simply seethe in peaceful silence forever. It hasn’t happened before, and it can only get worse. At some point, it’s going to explode on Israel. Bibi, too, can parade excuses for his inaction on negotiations. He can point to past Palestinian rejections and argue that a new Israeli offer would be greeted as a sign of weakness. But those rationalizations find less and less resonance worldwide, even among those whose hearts are with Israel.

Bibi is losing support and sympathy for Israel in just about every corner of the globe, and most importantly in the United States. American politicians don’t like to question openly Israel’s reluctance to negotiate, but they feel it acutely and say so privately. If Bibi doesn’t try to resume serious peace talks with the Palestinians, he risks permanently damaging Israel’s vital ties with America.

Nor can Washington itself escape responsibility for the Gaza fighting. For four years, President Obama did little to foster talks. Now, he needs some courage and willpower of his own, plus a viable strategy. First, he will have to push both parties back to the table and show them he has a plan to avoid another failure. Second, he’s got to present that plan at the outset—at least an outline and presumably similar to the Olmert proposal, which many Israelis once liked. Third, Obama’s plan will need to add economic juice, especially for the Palestinians, financed by the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors. He should even extend these benefits to Egypt and a future Syrian regime. These goodies would add coherence both to the peace process and to U.S. policy toward the evolving Arab Spring.

Yes, we might have another ceasefire, after more Gazans and Israelis are killed. And yes, the rockets and the air attacks would then stop for a while. But expect worse for all parties in this Palestinian-Israeli and Mideast horror show unless and until all realize that they themselves are to blame, as well as everyone else.