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Roger Cohen reality check

Courtesy of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, here’s another "Middle East Reality Check:"

Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. This narrow view has ignored the fact that both organizations are now entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement regional peace is impossible.

Britain aligned itself with the U.S. position on Hezbollah, but has now seen its error. Bill Marston, a Foreign Office spokesman, told Al Jazeera: “Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this.”

Hallelujah.

Precisely the same thing could be said of Hamas in Gaza. It is a political phenomenon, part of the national fabric there… The United States should follow the British example.

There’s no denying Hezbollah and Hamas are "entrenched political and social movements." So is the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in parts of southeast Asia and northern Africa and, in past eras, the apartheid regime in South Africa and the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. Does this mean the civilized peoples of the world — that is, those of us who don’t make a goal of killing innocent civilians, women and children — ought to engage and compromise with them?

On Hamas, Cohen gets some of the facts wrong. He writes:

With respect to Hamas, the West has bound itself to three conditions for any contact: Hamas must recognize Israel, forswear terrorism and accept previous Palestinian commitments. This was reiterated by Clinton on her first Mideast swing.

The 1988 Hamas Charter is vile, but I think it’s wrong to get hung up on the prior recognition of Israel issue. Perhaps Hamas is sincere in its calls for Israel’s disappearance — although it has offered a decades-long truce — but then it’s also possible that Israel in reality has no desire to see a Palestinian state.

For starters, Hamas has not offered Israel a decades-long truce. More importantly, why must we assume the best of Hamas and the worst of Israel? Cohen suggests that we should not take Hamas at its word when it comes to pledges to destroy Israel, but we should also not take Israel at its word when it says it wants a Palestinian state. Huh?

In survey after survey, the vast majority of Israelis say they favor the creation of a Palestinian state. More than eight years of rocket attacks from Hamas in Gaza have not changed this. In addition, three of Israel’s four major political parties support the creation of a Palestinian state. The notable exception is Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which likely will lead Israel’s next government.

In Gaza, however, there’s little interest in compromise with Israel. Even before Israel’s operation in Gaza in January, which left an estimated 1,300 dead and arguably further radicalized the population there, polls showed the vast majority of Palestinians supported terrorist attacks on Israelis like the Jerusalem yeshiva shooting in March 2008 that left eight students dead at Mercaz HaRav.

Cohen goes on:

One view of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it’s designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.

The other view would be that Israel took these steps regarding the West Bank and Gaza to protect Israeli citizens from terrorists in those territories who try to dispatch suicide bombers to Israeli cities and fire rockets at Israeli towns.

To be fair, Cohen’s view of the settlements has some truth: Settler leaders themselves acknowledge they aim to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state. And when it comes to settlement construction, the Israeli government has been unable to block Israel’s powerful settler lobby, which, with support inside the government and among Israel’s population, has continued to expand existing settlements.

But in Cohen’s narrative, Israel can do only wrong. He writes:

Speaking of violence, it’s worth recalling what Israel did in Gaza in response to sporadic Hamas rockets. It killed upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and children; caused damage estimated at $1.9 billion; and destroyed thousands of Gaza homes. It continues a radicalizing blockade on 1.5 million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land.

At this vast human, material and moral price, Israel achieved almost nothing beyond damage to its image throughout the world. Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel’s actions.

The "sporadic Hamas rockets" to which Cohen refers fall daily in southern Israel in an ever-expanding radius that already has reached Ashdod and Beersheva and soon will threaten metropolitan Tel Aviv. As for the blockade of the strip — Gaza is enemy territory controlled by a radical Islamist group that represses its own population and is bent on Israel’s destruction. Why should Israel open its borders to Gaza or encourage Egypt, Gaza’s other neighbor, to do so?

Cohen recently returned from a visit to Iran. If he wants an accurate view of Hamas he ought to go to Gaza — where he could learn firsthand about the repressive rule Hamas has imposed on the Palestinian population in the strip — and to southern Israel, where he’d see the impact eight years of incessant rocket fire has wrought. I’d be happy to join him, so the two of us could see those places together.

Cohen may be right that the Western approach over the last few years toward Hamas and Hezbollah have not worked well. Both groups have gained strength, and held their respective populations hostage in one form another. But ignoring the reality of what those groups stand for and undertake will only get us further into the muck in the Middle East, not lift us out of it.

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