If You Lie Down With Missiles

'Those who brought in combustible materials should have considered the possibility of a match being struck.' Nice words, but not sufficient.

I wonder how many times we can go on quoting Abba Eban's immortal observation that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity without boring the reader. But what can you do? It still fits. The Palestinians haven't learned a damn thing. They have a morbid knack for making the biggest, most stupid mistakes whenever the door opens a crack and a chance comes their way to establish a state alongside Israel.

What prompted them, after the Oslo accords were signed with such pomp and circumstance, to send suicide bombers into the heart of Israeli cities? Why, the moment the Barak, Arafat and Clinton summit ended at Camp David, did they kick off the Al-Aqsa Intifada that left 4,000 people dead on both sides? What is the sense in holding a victory parade in Gaza and then firing a massive volley of Qassam rockets into territories that Israel left of its own will? What is the logic in choosing a critical time, when Sharon is fighting for his political life against rebels in his own party, to bombard Israel with 40 Qassams in one night? What do they want? An Israel led by Bibi and Uzi Landau?

For a moment, it seemed that Hamas was abiding by Abu Mazen's request to silence the guns while the disengagement was under way, when Sharon made it clear there would be no withdrawal under fire. But the instant the last Israeli soldier left Gaza, the Hamas chiefs couldn't wait to take credit for "chasing out" the Israel Defense Forces and knocking down the settlements. In a bid to grab the reins when the Palestinian Authority goes to the polls in January, they've been stirring up the crowds as only they know how - until the Qassam explosion that killed 19 Palestinians and wounded 200. Hamas couldn't sell the lie that Israel was behind the blast, even to al-Jazeera.

Forty Qassams launched in one night was bad news for Abu Mazen on the eve of his summit with Sharon. Condoleezza Rice raked him over the coals and demanded that he disarm Hamas. Establishing a democracy with armed militias is out of the question, he was told. An analogy would be Lehi and Etzel, Israel's pre-state militias, taking over the country by force after the establishment of the state. David Ben-Gurion, aware of this danger, not only took away the weapons of these militias, but disbanded the Palmach. Those who keep monsters at home shouldn't be surprised when their appetite grows with the eating.

The goal of the Hamas leadership is to rule the PA roost. Abu Mazen appears to be too weak to enforce the one government-one army rule. He knows very well that Mussa Arafat, bumped off by Hamas, lived 200 meters from his home in Gaza. Hamas derives its power from the Palestinian street. It would be a strategic error on its part to do anything to bring Israeli artillery, tanks and planes back into firing range, now that the IDF has left the Gaza Strip and the inhabitants have been given a chance to rebuild their lives, free of the shackles of occupation. Put it this way: He who goes to bed with Qassams should not be surprised if he wakes up with a boom.

Both Abu Mazen and his interior minister denounced Hamas. When its leaders tried to shift the blame on Israel, it was Abu Mazen who didn't let them get away with it: "Those who brought in combustible materials should have considered the possibility of a match being struck." Nice words, but not sufficient.

The president of the Palestinian Authority has enough army and police units, and all the international backing he needs, to deploy them in Gaza in a display of strength against Hamas. Hamas has not only been lambasted by the ministers of the European Union but defined by the Bush administration as a terror organization.

For Israel to make more painful concessions for the sake of an agreement, it will take more than the shameful goings-on at the convention of the Likud Central Committee, and more than last night's vote and its consequences. What is needed more than anything is a leader on the other side who is no less forceful than Sharon - a man who is prepared to fight against the extremists and the enemies of peace, and be more than a partner on paper.