What must Hamas leaders have been thinking? Last month they sent guerrillas through a secret tunnel from Gaza into Israel where they launched an attack, killing two Israeli soldiers and kidnapping a third, 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Since no civilians were targeted, this was not an act of terrorism. It was an act of war.
Perhaps they had come to believe their own spin, their boast that it was “armed resistance” that had caused then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza. Maybe they believed that more violence would lead to more Israeli concessions -- especially now that Israel is led by a center-left coalition, the hard-line Likud Party having split and then collapsed over the wisdom of the Gaza withdrawal.
So far, at least, Israel's new Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has proven Hamas wrong. He has responded to Hamas' military attack with a military counterattack. He returned Israeli forces to Gaza, ordering them to search for Shalit, and also to stop the missiles – hundreds of them -- that have rained down on Israeli cities and towns virtually every day since the Israelis left Gaza.
Hamas has suggested that it might let Shalit go if Israel were to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange. No doubt, Olmert is tempted. But those prisoners are convicted terrorists. Were he to release even a few as part of such a deal, he would be inviting further incursions and kidnappings in the months and years ahead.
Olmert has been trying to inflict pain on Hamas (while providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians), promising that if Shalit is released and missile attacks cease, Israeli troops will walk away. Were Hamas to comply, a new peace process could begin.
But that is the last thing Hamas wants. Its leaders have stated their goal candidly and repeatedly: They mean to wipe Israel off the map. Living peacefully next door to a Jewish neighbor is not on their agenda.
For some reason, however, many Europeans and Americans can't bring themselves to accept that Hamas is articulating not a negotiating posture but a religious conviction. By now, most people understand that Islamists consider it impermissible for a Muslim ever to convert to another religion -- conversion brings a death sentence in Saudi Arabia and other countries where extreme variants of Islam hold sway. What most people may not realize is that Islamists also believe it is impermissible for land to convert: Territory once conquered by Muslims, they insist, must never revert to the rule of infidels. That includes not just Israel but large parts of Europe. Also Kashmir, they demand, must be Muslim-ruled; that almost certainly was the motive behind this week's railway bombings in India.
No one is likely to change Hamas' dogma. The most Israelis can do is demonstrate that Hamas' goal is not achievable at present, that the price of sending guerrillas and rockets into Israel is too high.
Such an understanding was long the basis for a tense stand-off with Hezbollah, the terrorist group that controls large areas of Lebanon along Israel's northern border, territories Israel once occupied – but from which Israel withdrew taking what was called “a risk for peace.”
On Wednesday, Hezbollah, too, committed an act of war against Israel, firing a barrage of Katyusha rockets and mortar shells, attacking Israeli border posts, killing 3 Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two more.
What is Hezbollah thinking? Almost certainly, that it is coming to the aid of Hamas and doing the bidding of its Iranian and Syrian masters who apparently believe Israel is not prepared to fight on two fronts simultaneously.
Are they correct? Israelis – in particular the new prime minister – are being tested. To prevail will not be easy, just as it was not easy for Israelis to defend themselves in 1948 when they were was attacked by all their Arab neighbors, and in 1967 when a second coordinated military effort to push Israelis into the sea was attempted. Both wars ended with Israel stronger – and in possession of more territory – than when the wars began.
Youssef Ibrahim, the Egyptian-born veteran American journalist, recently wrote an open letter to Palestinians. It said in part: “The truth is the Palestine you could have had in 1948 is much bigger than the one you could have had in 1967, which in turn is much bigger than what you may have to settle for now or in another 10 years. Struggle means less land and more misery and utter loneliness.”
But this is not what Hamas and Hezbollah are thinking.