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Diplomacy Cannot Quell Gaza Violence

Smoke rises over Gaza City in the second week of the conflict
Smoke rises over Gaza City in the second week of the conflict
As the crisis in Gaza enters its second week, international diplomats are seeking a cease-fire. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called the situation "unacceptable" and demanded that "regional and international partners [do more] to end the violence and encourage a political dialogue." Amnesty International has demanded that the United States pressure Israel to stop its aerial bombardment. European and Arab diplomats hope that other states -- perhaps Syria and Iran -- will pressure Hamas to agree to a cease-fire.

It won't work. Knee-jerk diplomacy -- demanding a truce regardless of the cause of the fighting -- does more to accelerate conflict than to resolve it.

The root of the current crisis lies in Hamas policy. Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005, giving the Palestinian Authority an unprecedented opportunity to govern. Hamas took 76 of 132 seats in the January 2006 elections, and while the group used the poll to claim democratic legitimacy, it eschewed the responsibility of leadership. It had built popularity on violence, and found opposition easier than governance. It did little to improve Palestinian life. Rather than develop industry, it destroyed the multimillion-dollar greenhouses which Israel left behind to help build the Palestinian economy; rather than eliminate corruption, it diverted millions into Hamas coffers.

Here the United Nations and donor countries have been unintentionally complicit. By subsidizing Palestinian schools, health, and welfare, donors removed the accountability upon which good governance depends. Hamas need not make the improvement of Palestinian life a priority when it knows that donors will bail it out. And, because money is fungible, aid furnishes Hamas with resources to expend on arms.

Hamas rocket attacks on Israel have increased in tandem with European and UN assistance. Rocket fire from Gaza into Israel increased more than 500 percent in the year following Hamas' rise to power, and almost doubled again in 2008, as 1,730 rockets and twice as many mortar rounds struck Israel. Diplomats interceded to promote peace, but during each period of truce, Hamas rearmed with more sophisticated weaponry. In light of the escalating attacks on Israel, the United States is understandably reluctant to demand Israel cease defending itself, especially after urging Israel’s initial withdraw from Gaza.

No Help From The Neighbors

To hope for Syrian or Iranian diplomatic intercession is inane. Syria hosts Hamas' most militant wing and provides transit for Hizballah's resupply, and Israel's destruction is at the core of the Islamic Republic's ideology. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel's demise, not by demographic change but by military force, on more than 30 occasions. As Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on January 1 to discuss a cease-fire, Iranian television reported that 20,000 Iranian students had signed up to become suicide bombers in response to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's declaration that "anyone who dies in this holy struggle against World Zionism [is] a martyr."

Nor are Iranian hardliners alone in their call for Israel's destruction. While reformist former President Mohammad Khatami spoke of the dialogue of civilizations to Western diplomats, he told Iranian television, "If we abide by the Koran, all of us should mobilize to kill."

Indeed, the Iranian regime has worked consistently to undermine any Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Seven years ago this week, the Israeli navy intercepted the Karine-A, a Gaza-bound freighter carrying 50 tons of Iranian arms, supplied during a fragile truce. Four-and-a-half years later, war erupted after Hizballah, an Iranian-sponsored group, attacked Israel. The United States then pressured Israel to accede to a ceasefire, and Iran claimed victory. Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei's top foreign policy advisor, declared that the war had shown Israel to be a "paper tiger."

Palestinians undoubtedly suffer under the Israeli assault. Israeli strikes have killed an estimated 500 people, one-fifth to one-quarter of them civilians. While the civilian deaths are tragic, the low proportion of non-combatant casualties in a densely populated area demonstrates Israel's desire to avoid collateral damage. Unlike Hamas rockets, Israeli strikes are neither aimed at civilians nor designed to terrorize.

Hamas launched rockets for demagogic gain. Governments can pursue war, but when they do so, they should recognize that opponents fight back. Those who choose war must understand the likely cost of their decision to the economy and their constituents. To exonerate an elected government from accountability undermines the foundation of democracy.

Diplomats mean well, but to shield protagonists from peril fuels conflict and condemns the Palestinians to misery, given that a sustainable peace requires that both sides recognize the true cost of war. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat won a Nobel Peace prize for his 1977 landmark visit to Israel and the subsequent 1978 Camp David Accords. He may be remembered as a peacemaker today, but he made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem only after realizing in 1973 the futility of seeking war.

Until the Palestinians and their elected government learn Sadat's lesson, diplomacy is doomed. The road to peace lies not in a cease-fire, but jointly in Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist and in the international community's understanding that Israel's right to live without terrorism and rocket attacks is no different than that of Germany, Japan, or Canada. If Palestinians chose peace and education over war and hatred, Gaza could become a Singapore, Hong Kong, or Dubai. Moral equivalency and mistimed diplomacy only delay such a reckoning, however, and so do far more harm than good.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.