It’s easy to see the twisted strategy behind the fusillade of rockets directed at Israel: Militants in Gaza are trying to burnish their credentials as leaders of the resistance. They provoked Israeli retaliation. Civilians are paying the price. It’s a devastating, all-too-familiar pattern.
But this time, the rockets are more powerful, killing three Israeli civilians last Thursday. And there are signs that Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, feels confident that its allies who have taken power in the Arab Spring will rally to its side. In this battle, Hamas is the aggressor. Israel is the victim. But in the cruel logic of Mideast politics, Israel will be safer and more secure by exercising wisdom and restraint. The Israeli response should be tough enough to send a message to those involved in the rocket attacks, but proportionate enough to ensure that Hamas can't claim the moral high ground. The deaths of nine members of a Palestinian family in an Israeli rocket attack on Sunday, which is being investigated by the Israeli military, is a sign of how quickly, and seemingly accidentally, the moral ground can shift in a violent exchange such as this one.
Each side is threatening escalation. Hamas warned that it could resume suicide bombings. Israel has threatened a ground invasion. US officials should do all they can to press regional actors to broker a ceasefire before these escalations come to pass. Even if Israel does mount a ground operation to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, success would only be temporary, a repeat of Israel's last major military incursion in 2009 — at the cost of many Palestinian civilian casualties and the loss of many Israeli soldiers, as well as risking a wider conflict.
Isolating Gaza isn't a long-term solution. Last month, the leader of Qatar visited Gaza, breaking with the international effort to shun Hamas. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has planned a visit this week.
A permanent solution must be found that prevents dangerous missiles from being smuggled into Gaza again; proposals include placing a NATO or United Nations-backed force on Gaza's border with Egypt. Such a solution should provide greater security to Israel, but also give hope to civilians in Gaza that the Israeli blockade on many types of material goods will soon be eased. So far, despite all its losses, Hamas has refused to agree to a ceasefire without an Israeli promise to lift the blockade immediately.
If Hamas leaders hoped to rally Arab neighbors to its side, they may be disappointed. Few Arab leaders want this conflict to spread. Although Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party has blamed Israel for the violence, Morsi himself appears to be trying to broker a ceasefire. On Monday, Israeli president Shimon Peres praised Morsi for playing a "constructive role," according to CNN.
So far, President Obama has given a boilerplate response to the conflict, reiterating Israel's right to defend itself. That's true enough. But Obama should do more to make it clear to people in the Mideast and beyond that the United States is a force for peace, and that America's deepest concern is for innocent civilians on both sides. Obama should also show that he has not stopped pushing for wider acceptance of Israel in the Arab world and wider acceptance in Israel of a peaceful Palestinian state.
While only Israelis and Palestinians can truly make peace, the United States and its Arab allies must do all they can to keep the fading peace process alive. At the end of the day, it could prove to be the most important casualty of the rockets from Gaza.