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The pictures are familiar, and so is the automatic response: fighter aircraft bombing a "bank of targets" and Israeli tanks positioned on the outskirts of Gaza. The justification is also present: The State of Israel cannot refrain from responding to the firing of Qassams. But the protection of Sderot residents is not the issue here, since the state could long ago have built a protective mantle for the homes and schools of Sderot. Rather, again, it is the state's prestige that is on the line.

It is the same prestige that contributed quite a bit to creating the real strategic threat facing Israel. This threat is not expressed by the terrifying Qassams that are causing Sderot residents to flee from their city, but rather by the disintegration of Gaza, by the subjection of its million and a quarter residents to the reign of gangs, by the neutralization of the ability to build a strong, united Palestinian leadership, and by the establishment of a state of terror in Gaza, which operates almost in isolation from any central Palestinian administration.

The reason for the state's prestige being in question is its need to justify the decision not to recognize the Hamas government and to impose an economic siege on the territories. At the same time, Israel has conditioned the Palestinians' ability to exist on a matter of honor - on Hamas' recognition of Israel. How ridiculous now is the tally of triumphs and defeats of Fatah versus Hamas, of corpses on one side versus corpses on the other side, and the mathematical determination that Hamas is winning on the street. Is it not the same Hamas that already won over the street in the elections last year? The same Hamas that maintained the welcome cease-fire for many long months? The same Hamas that signed the Mecca Agreement and accepted the Arab Initiative?

Hamas is not a pleasant movement. It includes elements of terror and draws its sources from a fanatical religious ideology. But Hamas and the Palestinian unity government, as long as the latter still holds up, are the best address Israel has at the moment. This government is not just the only one that has the potential to control the "State of Gaza," it is the only one that is still interested in the fate of its public and, therefore, is influenced by the pressure of that public. It is the only one that is also threatened by the firing of Qassams on Sderot. But without the means to provide benefits for its citizens, it is also paralyzed.

Anyone looking for analogies and rushing to compare Gaza to Somalia or Iraq, would be well advised to complete the analogy. Iraq also lacks a strong government capable of imposing order and security, but the government in Iraq, as well as the American administration, is ready to talk with everyone, including Ba'athist terror gangs and Shi'ite terror organizations, in order to achieve quiet. No reasonable person in the American administration would reject a year-long ceasefire - not to speak of a 20-year ceasefire - because of matters of prestige or recognition. The American government did not stop channeling money to the Iraqi government, even though a considerable part of it is being used to acquire weapons or ends up in private pockets. The main thing is to be able to maintain some semblance of normal life.

This is the proper analogy Israel should adopt. Instead, there is more prattle about a political horizon, while in practice there is economic strangulation - though this strangulation has neither stopped the flow of arms into the Gaza Strip nor the firing of Qassams. This strangulation is nothing more than collective punishment aimed at subduing the ideology of Hamas. And in this it has also failed.

For the thousands of residents of Sderot, who again are becoming pawns in the hands of the government of prestige, it would not have mattered how the government achieved the quiet that it enjoyed in recent months. Whether the government speaks with Hamas or opens the gates of the border passages, whether it conducts comprehensive peace talks or just suffices with a cease-fire - from their perspective, and from the perspective of most of Israel's citizenry, the quiet is the main thing. This means: in Sderot, not to hear the whistling of incoming rockets; and in the other parts of Israel, not to hear about Sderot. But now, first of all we will shoot a bit, flex a muscle, brandish international support, and argue about Gaydamak's evacuation enterprise. But the government will refrain from doing the essential thing - letting the Palestinian government work.