Sensing a rising Islamic tide in the Middle East, Hamas has picked a fight with Israel it can't win militarily, but could win politically. That's something Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should prevent as she works to make a fragile ceasefire hold.
No one wants to see Israeli forces go back into Gaza. A lot of Palestinians will be killed, many of them civilians. A ground incursion would also highlight the asymmetry of power between the two sides, allowing Hamas to win sympathy by playing the victim. That's why Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu is holding back, for now.
Nothing new here: Yasser Arafat and the PLO pioneered the cynical tactic of using terror attacks to provoke harsh Israeli reprisals, hoping that the resulting death and destruction among Palestinians would turn world opinion against the "occupation."
What's different now, of course, is the regional political landscape. Democratic elections have brought Islamic parties to power in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia. Secular dictators like Hosni Mubarak held no brief for Hamas, but his successor, Mohamed Morsi, can't disavow a kind of kinship with Hamas, which considers itself a branch of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt isn't alone: Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has gravitated from friendship toward the Jewish state to outright hostility. Erdogan has called Israel a "terrorist state" for launching air strikes against Gaza that have claimed over 100 lives. Bolstered by such signs of support, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal recently boasted that Hamas is backed by the entire Islamic "Ummah."
The Islamization of the region's politics is having several disturbing effects. Although U.S. and European governments label Hamas as a terrorist group, it seems to be breaking out of its pariah status as Egypt and other countries offer moral support. Hamas' rising prestige comes at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas' secular Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. While Hamas postures as the leader of Palestinian resistance to occupation, the moderate Abbas has been unable to wring significant concessions from Israel, and is embroiled in a forlorn effort to win UN recognition of a Palestinian state.
Worst of all, the legitimation of Hamas would legitimize its tactics -- namely, rocket strikes on Israeli civilians. This points to another important asymmetry in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- an asymmetry of political intent and civilized conduct.
Israel defines peace as an end to Hamas' rocket attacks; Hamas defines peace as the end of Israel. These positions obviously aren't reconcilable. Even if Clinton is able to get both sides to abide by the tenuous truce she's brokered with Morsi's help, it won't last because making war on Israel is Hamas' raison d'etre. And if Hamas won't do it, there are plenty of even more radical jihadists waiting in the wings.
As she tries to persuade both sides to stand down, Secretary Clinton must also avoid the trap of moral equivalence. Treating Israel and Hamas as equally culpable in the fighting obscures two fundamental truths: First, Hamas is the aggressor, launching hundreds of rocket attacks into Israeli towns before Israel retaliated by assassinating a Hamas military chief. Second, Hamas intentionally targets Israeli civilians -- which is both terrorism and a war crime -- while Israel targets Hamas fighters who "embed" themselves under hospitals and near schools to maximize the chances of civilian casualties in Gaza.
The Obama administration needs to be clear on these points. It should hold firm against Hamas demands for major concessions from Israel -- like ending its embargo of the Gaza Strip and loosening border controls -- as a condition for halting rocket attacks. And it should press Morsi and other Muslim leaders to unequivocally condemn Hamas' terrorism and incitements to hatred, in return for U.S. efforts to dissuade Israel from launching ground operations.
David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has monitored Hamas media in Gaza. It makes for instructive reading:
The group's official al-Aqsa television channel and website are replete with violent images and exhortations to martyrdom, including explicit advocacy of terrorizing, killing, and dismembering "Zionists," whether soldiers or civilians. For example, on November 16, the channel carried a video declaring, "Oh occupier, we are coming toward you. Leave our land. All of Palestine is ours. There is nothing here for you but death...You will end as body parts. That is Allah's promise." Two days later, it broadcast statements such as "We have longed for the suicide attacks. Expect us soon at bus stations and cafes," and "The Qassam brigades love death more than you love life."
The challenge for America's Middle East diplomacy is to draw a bright and clear distinction between sympathy for Palestinian suffering, which is natural, and tacit support for Hamas' malignant aims and terrorist means, which will scuttle any hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Otherwise, Hamas will emerge from this conflagration stronger than before.