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Today's Gaza Tragedy Sets Stage For Tomorrow's

Palestinians sift though destroyed buildings following Israeli air strikes in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 5.
Palestinians sift though destroyed buildings following Israeli air strikes in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 5.
How did the Gaza crisis start? The easy answer is that Hamas last month decided not to extend a truce with the Israelis and resumed firing random rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel, in turn, launched a week of air strikes against Hamas positions and other areas of Gaza. After a week of aerial bombardment, Israel sent in ground forces. So far, an estimated 500 Palestinians have been killed, about one-third of them women and children. About half a dozen Israelis have been killed by Hamas rockets.

But a chronology like this ignores a decades-long history of violence, terror, hatred, and death. It minimizes the fact that Gaza has been occupied or blockaded by Israel for more than 40 years. This small, beautiful strip of Mediterranean coast is home to 1.5 million poor, disorganized, misgoverned people -- ordinary, brave people, like you and me, desperate for normal lives with jobs, health care, and education for their children. But these dreams have been thwarted by Israel -- and by Egypt, which has kept the Rafah border crossing closed.

For the last four decades, Palestinians have lived in occupied lands, in refugee camps. They are encircled and constantly in danger of attack, eviction, death. They have suffered from the incompetence and malfeasance of their leaders and political parties. As their living conditions have worsened and their desperation has increased, they have increasingly turned to extremism, to ideologies of hatred toward Israel and toward Jews. And they have resorted to actions that have only deepened their suffering.

And this suffering has originated mainly with successive Israeli governments that have not shown the wisdom to see their own self-interest in allowing Palestinians the room to live and breathe and establish stable lives. Israel has consistently rejected either a Palestinian homeland with a functioning, empowered government or the evolution of Israel itself into a country with two equal and protected ethnic groups.

Lessons Unheeded

The beneficiaries of this shortsightedness have been terrorists -- primarily, Hamas -- who propagate hatred and the destructive slogan "Death to Israel." People with no opportunity to care for their families, their neighborhoods, their country, instead become preoccupied with thoughts of heaven and martyrdom.

The Palestinians did not learn from the trauma of the 1967 war, when Israel punished their ambitions by occupying their lands; consigning hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to refugee camps; and keeping them divided, underdeveloped, disorganized, and desperate for decades. Egypt and Jordan reached peace agreements on the basis of returned land for mutual recognition. But many Palestinians -- particularly Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah -- continue to seek concessions from a state they are unwilling to recognize and even seek to destroy.

Israel did not learn the lessons of the post-1967 Palestinian terrorism -- that war, occupation, the constant expansion of settlements, and policies that keep the Palestinians weak and oppressed cannot bring peace and security. You cannot seize the land of a Palestinian and kill his son and then expect his cousin to live quietly under occupation. The Israelis were willing to make peace deals with Egypt and Jordan -- and may yet do so with Syria -- but they cannot bring themselves to hammer out a similar deal with the Palestinians, who share the same core Biblical lands that many Israelis considered Israel's exclusive birthright.

They say you can choose your wife, but not your neighbor. A conflict between neighbors for a day or a month might be tolerable, but a continuing drama that lasts for years becomes a living hell for both sides. Whether you are the strong, prosperous neighbor or the poor and desperate one, the only choice is to end the conflict or live in hell.

Unintended Consequences

It looks more and more as if Israel and the Palestinians are choosing more hell. Two years ago, Israel invaded Lebanon in order to smash the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and bolster the moderate Lebanese government. But the result was a resurgent Hezbollah claiming victory and the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora much weakened.

Now something similar is happening. Tens of thousands of mainstream Arabs, Turks, and Iranians have taken to the streets to condemn the death and destruction caused by Israel's offensive. While the goal was to destroy Hamas and boost the government of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, the likely result will be increased sympathy for the "martyrized" Hamas, poisonous schadenfreude on the part of many Israelis, a weakened Abbas, and millions of Muslims and non-Muslims around the world more militantly than ever opposed to Israel and the United States for failing to stop the bloodshed.

After four decades of living in hell at each other's throats, you'd think Israelis and Palestinians would be less eager to sow the seeds of future years of hatred.

Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL