Every armed conflict reaches a point of diminishing returns, when even the most dedicated combatant should be able to see that the humanitarian cost isn’t worth the military gains. The war in Gaza reached that point on Wednesday, when at least 20 civilian refugees were killed and 90 wounded when Israeli shells hit a UN school that had been held out as a safe haven. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rightly called the attack “outrageous” and demanded an immediate cease-fire. On Thursday night, the two sides agreed to stop fighting for 72 hours. Hopefully, both Israel and the militant group Hamas will recognize that the rising number of deaths, now well into the thousands, will undermine any of their future aims.
For Israel, the bloodshed of the past month has created hundreds of new Palestinian militants against the Jewish state. Their hatred will be difficult to quell through any future peace talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains fixated on the goal of destroying every tunnel used by terrorists to travel from Gaza to Israel, but whatever extra security Israel gains will have to be measured against the future cost of more militants determined to avenge the civilians killed in the war. Tunnels can always be rebuilt; but the desire for peaceful coexistence is far harder to recreate once it has been destroyed. And that is the only thing that can truly safeguard Israel’s future in the long term.
Nonetheless, even the most grief-stricken Palestinian relative of a dead civilian must know, deep down, that this was a fight that Hamas encouraged in the hopes of establishing itself as the true defender of the Palestinian people. And by launching attacks from areas crowded with civilians, Hamas all but invited tragedies like the one at the UN school on Wednesday. Both sides share blame for the deaths at a place where, UN officials say, soldiers were warned 17 times about the presence of civilians. For its part, Israel should investigate how or why the school came to be hit with artillery fire. But these types of tragedies can’t be separated from the war itself; there is no such thing as an orderly military conflict. And by placing its fighters among crowds of civilians, Hamas placed its fellow Palestinians at risk.
Yesterday, supporters of both parties may finally have come to believe that enough is enough. But a true, lasting peace will come only when those who want it can look beyond their hatreds and recognize who on their own side has been a force for conflict, and who has worked for peace. Palestinians would be deeply foolish to allow Hamas to come out of this war in a strengthened political position; and Israelis need to look hard at Netanyahu’s policies and wonder what, exactly, is the end game. Then they can begin the long task of undoing the considerable damage of the past month.