A cartoon image comes to mind. A mother breaks up a fight between two children, one of whom offers this defense: “It started when he hit me back.”

Remember that mentality when you hear Palestinians call Israel “the aggressor.” Hamas fired hundreds, perhaps 1,000 missiles into Israel from Gaza. They hit schools, apartment buildings, streets and vacant lots. The aim was to kill and, if not to kill, at least to terrorize. Mission accomplished.

Finally, Israel responded, first by “droning” the Hamas military leader, then by airstrikes against the terror group’s ammunition dumps and rocket launchers, some intentionally placed near mosques and houses.

So, yes, naturally, the war started when Israel hit back.

Double standards are par for the course in the Mideast and all the Jew-hating salons from Turtle Bay to Paris. While the hatred is shouted with a clenched fist on the smoldering streets of Gaza City, equally absurd claims are made by striped-pants diplomats and left-leaning sophisticates who insist Israel is guilty of “disproportionate” force because it uses its huge military advantage.

Their argument moves the goal posts. They tacitly accept Israel’s right to respond, but only up to a point. No matter its losses, the Jewish state must never “escalate” because that would be unfair.

Think about that: Affirmative action has come to the battlefield, where the results must be level for the sake of fairness. Coming soon, the demand that Israel turn over half of its weapons to its enemies. Perhaps Hamas would like an Iron Dome of its own?

Meanwhile, Syrian leaders slaughter tens of thousands of their fellow Muslims, but the world turns away. The dead opponents would have been featured by CNN if they had died at the hands of Israel.

This theater of the ridiculous is not without the potential for unspeakable suffering and global conflict. Hamas’ provocation is part of a larger scheme of Islamists who are growing both in radicalism and power.

Their aim is to wipe Israel off the map, not to negotiate its borders. Iran is the foremost sponsor, and its fingerprints are literally all over the Gaza conflict, having supplied Hamas with many of the missiles it uses to terrorize Israelis.

Another sign of rising danger in the changing Mideast is that Egypt and Turkey were asked by the United States to help mediate between Israel and Hamas. That would be the same Egypt now controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological parent to Hamas, and Turkey, where the prime minister called Israel “a terrorist nation.”

Israel won’t trust any half-baked deal that’s offered from those governments, which is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced she would get involved.

Her presence will prove encouraging only if she really has Israel’s back. The test will be whether she makes it seem that both sides are equally guilty. It won’t help or be relevant if she starts blubbering about the “peace process,” as though Hamas just wants a good deal and is prepared to co-exist with Israel.

It is not. Israel is fighting for its existence, and Hamas is sworn to never accept that existence. Any concession Israel makes will be pocketed and used against it in the future.

A cease-fire, which was announced Wednesday, is not peace and can’t last. Having tested Israel and found itself greatly overmatched again, Hamas will withdraw, claim victory and start preparing for the next round.

In a sense, it is winning. Its militancy is increasingly popular among Palestinians and fits with the growing fundamentalist rage in the region. Now it has been rewarded with the attention of the United States, which is forced to bargain over its demands and grievances.

All of which guarantees one thing. We have not seen the last of the war between Hamas and Israel.

To read more from Michael Goodwin's New York Post column on additional topics including New York's mayoral election, click here