EGYPT, France, and Turkey deserve the utmost support from Washington as they try to broker a cease-fire and a durable truce in Gaza. As the deaths of 40 people from Israel's shelling of United Nations schools in Gaza demonstrated earlier this week, civilians are paying a terrible price for the failure of their leaders to renew peacefully the six-month truce that collapsed last month.
In the truce talks, Israel is demanding an end to rocket fire and to the smuggling of new rockets for Hamas in tunnels that run from Egypt into Gaza. Like other governments, Israel has an obligation to prevent its home front from becoming a battlefront.
By the same token, any Palestinian leadership would be obliged to seek - as a condition for a new truce - an end to the economic siege Israel has imposed on the 1.5 million Gazans. Since Hamas seized power from rival faction Fatah in a coup in June 2007, and particularly since the truce began breaking down in early November after an Israeli attack on a Hamas tunnel, supplies of food, medical equipment, fuel, and electricity for Gaza have been reduced or choked off.
From July 1 to Nov. 1, only 15 mortar shells and 11 rockets were fired into southern Israel, without any fatalities. These are Israeli figures; they indicate that the truce, while not airtight, was generally working. Both sides share blame for the breakdown. And each was partly right to accuse the other of rendering the situation intolerable.
Israel wanted to end rocket firing from Gaza and to prevent Hamas from acquiring longer-range rockets supplied by Iran. Israeli leaders feared that Hamas would soon be able to hit Tel Aviv with guided missiles like those launched from southern Lebanon by Hezbollah in 2006. Hamas, whose popularity in Gaza had been declining, needed to show it could lift the economic embargo on Gaza before legislative and presidential elections anticipated in the coming year.
Sadly, destructively, Hamas and Israel chose violent means to maneuver toward a new truce. Israel's violence was far greater, taking more than 680 Palestinian lives, about a third of whom were women and children. The political effect of Israel's attack is to enhance support for Hamas among Palestinians and in the Arab world. In the long run, popular anger at the suffering of Gazans will play into the hands of extremists. That anger will also make it harder for the 22 states of the Arab League to keep the pledge of their Arab Peace Initiative: to establish normalized relations with Israel once it reaches a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Israelis and Palestinians desperately need a new truce in Gaza. The tragedy is that they could have achieved what they needed without the killing, injuring, and traumatizing of so many blameless people.