A Diplomatic Solution to Gaza

There is something revolting about the crocodile tears the Palestinians are shedding. They appeal to the UN Security Council, asking it to intervene against Israel's military actions. Mahmoud Abbas travels to the Gaza Strip and urges the armed groups to restore calm. Hamas spokesmen do not reject proposals for a cease-fire. The impression is that after Hamas began taking blows from the Israel Defense Forces, they remembered to cry "stop."

No country would have put up with an assault on its sovereignty, which is what Hamas is doing with the Qassam barrages against Sderot and its environs. No army would hold back from seeking to maximize its initial successes, as has been evident in the IDF operations in the Gaza Strip. It appears that Hamas has come under pressure from the Israeli attacks, and even when it issues bellicose statements, it seems it is seeking a way to end the current conflagration.

On the face of it, Israel should reject such feelers. It has the right not to come to terms with a situation in which Hamas retains its ability to decide when to resume the missile attacks. But this attitude, however legitimate it may be, is dangerous: A violent confrontation has a dynamic of its own. It could get out of control and Israel may find itself missing an opportunity to put an end to it. The Second Lebanon War illustrates this. As early as the first days of the war the prime minister had a number of opportunities to shift toward diplomacy, but chose otherwise. As the campaign wore on, Ehud Olmert found it increasingly difficult to create a clear "victorious image." Presumably, in retrospect, he is very sorry about that.

A government that knows where it is headed, one that has a clear political vision, would take advantage of the pressure Hamas is under, and would transform it into a platform for dialogue for a comprehensive agreement. Under the present circumstances there is no chance for this: This government is bound by its refusal to recognize Hamas, and too weak to begin negotiations on the future of the West Bank or the Golan Heights. So it is best to make do with little, to limit the current bloodletting as much as possible and reach calm on the Gaza border, even for a limited period. This is so because a continuation of the violent confrontation is destined to result in an escalation whose scope cannot be predicted. It may also become complicated because of a military error, and mostly, because it comes at the expense of the people of Sderot. While the residents of Kiryat Shmona and other communities in the North had bomb shelters last summer (even if these had not been prepared for a long stay), the inhabitants of Sderot are completely exposed to the Qassams.

We should realize that the residents of Sderot are shell-shocked - nothing can hide this. They show textbook behavior of a population under such stress: When people are under existential threat they develop anxieties and fears. This is a natural and legitimate response. To deal with the crisis, the affected population must be made to feel that things are under control. Actively confronting the harsh circumstances is the key to overcoming the trauma. When the response is passive, the feeling of helplessness intensifies and the internal breakdown worsens. A community in a life-threatening situation needs leadership; when this is not working, societal cohesion is undermined.

This is what is happening in Sderot, and to restore the stricken town to its senses, the first thing needed is to set up basic defensive infrastructure. Research carried out about treating the citizens in the North during "Operation Accountability" in 1993 and "Operation Grapes of Wrath" in 1996 has resulted in important insights. In short: evacuating the population for a short period of time is useless. On the contrary, this might be harmful if it exposes the evacuees to the conditions that have contributed to their anxiety. Furthermore, the development of esprit de corps among the community under attack, stressing an ability to withstand a crisis, is an important way to bolster morale.

The residents of Sderot must be offered basic defenses to counter the difficulties and anxieties of the war. A cease-fire is therefore necessary to carry out an urgent operation that would set up secure rooms and reinforced shelters in the suffering town. Unfortunately, it's not only Hamas that needs a break in the current conflagration, but also Israel.