End Hamas Hostage Strategy to Bring Gaza Peace

The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas has turned Gaza into a hellish battlefield as part of its long-term strategy to destroy Israel. The militant Islamist group has essentially taken Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants hostage by putting a higher priority on killing Israelis than on protecting Palestinians. Hamas thugs continue to hide among Palestinian civilians while they launch rockets to kill Israeli civilians. Unless Hamas is decisively defeated, civilians on both sides of the border will remain at mortal risk.

The United States must work for a resolution of the Gaza crisis that reduces, if not eliminates, the ability of Hamas to threaten civilians on both sides. A premature cease-fire that leaves Hamas free to build up its rocket arsenal and exploit Palestinian civilians as human shields will only sow the seeds of an even worse crisis in the future. This was a major flaw in the last cease-fire, which Hamas unilaterally abandoned on Dec. 19, after it had greatly improved its military strength by smuggling Iranian-made rockets through tunnels under the border with Egypt.

Ending the previous cease-fire would be considered a gross error by responsible leaders who were interested in the safety and welfare of their own people. But Hamas is a revolutionary movement that is more interested in destroying Israel than in building a Palestinian state. It is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and European Union for its murders of more than 500 civilians in Israel, including more than 20 Americans.

Hamas proclaimed that "Gaza will be a graveyard" for the Israeli army. It seeks to duplicate Hezbollah's strategy in its 2006 war against Israel by building a network of underground bunkers and elaborate fortifications in Gaza. Hamas hopes to lure the Israeli army into a protracted and bloody war of attrition, fuel a media propaganda campaign, discredit the rival Palestinian Authority, undermine Arab governments seeking peace with Israel and advance the interests of its chief patron, Iran.

Those who argue the Israeli military's response is disproportionate to Hamas' rocket terrorism err on several levels. They're equating the intentional crimes of a terrorist group that purposely targets civilians with the defensive actions of a democratic government seeking to protect its citizens -- a government that's going to great lengths to avoid accidental Palestinian deaths.

Israel's goal is to defeat Hamas, not to engage in a tit-for-tat conflict with a suicide cult that's only too willing to sacrifice the innocent lives of its Palestinian hostages.

To stop the fighting, foreign leaders have flocked to the U.N. and Israel. But no negotiated cease-fire is possible as long as both sides remain determined to fight -- Israel to reduce the rocket threat and weaken Hamas, Hamas to transform a military disaster into a political victory by cynically exploiting the deaths of its Palestinian human shields.

The Bush administration has blocked passage of one-sided U.N. Security Council resolutions for the current Gaza crisis. The Obama administration should continue to block these resolutions because they only encourage Hamas to prolong its hostage strategy.

Behind the scenes, the United States should work with its Arab allies (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) to pressure Hamas into accepting a halt of its rocket terrorism in exchange for a halt of Israeli military operations. But any cease-fire will be short-lived unless it includes:

* A verifiable end to Hamas rocket attacks

* A halt to cross-border arms smuggling

* Constant monitoring of humanitarian aid to prevent Hamas from diverting aid to strengthen its repressive control over Gaza

* Deployment of international monitors to assure that the first three conditions are met

International efforts to halt the fighting in Gaza should focus on restricting Hamas' ability to threaten Israel or hold Palestinians hostage. A cease-fire that enables Hamas to rebuild its military power and tighten its brutal grip on Gaza only leads to more violence that Hamas, Iran and other Islamist extremist groups will exploit.

To restore stability to the region and rescue the dying hopes for eventual peace, the United States and other powers must help defeat the Hamas strategy of hiding behind Gazans in its ruthless campaign to kill Israelis.

James Phillips is a Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.