The Gaza Strip is truly a forbidding place for the uninitiated.
I first visited Gaza City in 1971 when I was a young staffer on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Refugees undertaking one of Congress' first assessments of the plight of Palestinian refugees, and then several times in the past few decades.
It does not take a sophisticated observer to understand the repressive squalor that qualifies as subsistence living inside Gaza. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are crammed into a sandbox slum no bigger than the District of Columbia, cut off from their brethren in the West Bank -- yes, suffering under a Hamas rule that by any standard has actually made Gaza as close to a hell on earth as one can imagine. Instead of preserving the last vestiges of operable civilian infrastructure that the Israelis had left behind following their withdrawal a few years ago, Hamas methodically bulldozed the "Zionist contaminants" (translated from Hamas' own Arabic website). So much for giving its own people a better life even if it meant benefiting from Israeli "leftovers."
My last visit a few years ago was the most revealing (before Hamas seized Gaza). I was on a fact-finding mission and requested to meet with one of Hamas' leaders, who were surprisingly open to the request. Always important to hear extremists in their own tongue. I was put into the trunk of a car once across the Nesher Israeli crossing, and taken on a bone-breaking ride through Gaza's potholed streets to a back alley. The car stopped, the trunk popped open, and I soon found myself face to face with one of Hamas' leaders (name withheld).
For over two hours, I was subjected to the expected Hamas rantings about Israel's illegitimacy and Hamas' determination to transform Palestine into a fundamentalist Islamic state where only those Jews who had lived in pre-British Mandate Palestine would be "accepted."
And what would become of all of the other millions of Jews who had come to settle in Israel since then I asked? Hamas conveniently would force them out of Israel, and what became of them was of no consequence to Hamas. It was the UN's problem, the Americans' problem, the Germans' problem, but no longer the Palestinians' problem. Driving them into the sea would have been too impolitic for the Hamas spokesman to utter, but the intent was just the same.
Therefore, in order order to understand what this struggle is all about, one must understand Hamas' goals, largely derived from its ideological paternity to the Egyptian Muslim Brothehood. As a Sunni extremist offshoot of the Brotherhood, Hamas' raison d'etre is Israel's destruction -- nothing less will do.
Hamas' leaders, both in Gaza and in Damascus, have every intent to transform Hamas' control of Gaza into "Hezbollah South." Hamas, with Iran's backing, is slowly preparing Gaza to serve as a staging ground for an eventual all-out assault on Israel, joined at the hip with its Shiite extremist terrorist brethren of the Hezbollah who are also busily rearming themselves in Lebanon and itching for the next round of war with Israel -- hopefully with a nuclear-armed Iran to egg them on.
Since Hamas illegitimately seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in its own fratricidal terror campaign, Hamas has imposed a Taliban-style subsistence on the Gaza Strip, made all the harsher by Hamas' stubborn refusal to soften its hatred of Israel so as to permit more aid to enter Gaza.
The rockets being fired arbitrarily, and may I intentionally add, without Israeli provocation, after the expiration on December 18 of the latest intermittent "Tahdiyeh" or self-declared Hamas "lull" is designed to turn southern Israel into a virtual no-man's land. Hamas wants to begin "liberating" Palestine from its side of the border.
When Hamas' leaders decided to resume their indiscriminate rocket fire into Israel, they did so knowing full well that Israel would be forced to react no matter what the inevitable civilian suffering. Having smuggled into Gaza longer-range Grad missiles from Iran through the 800 some odd tunnels that Hamas has dug under the Egyptian-Gaza border, Hamas is betting on the hope that the Israel's countermeasures would drive more and more Palestinians into the lap of Hamas, both in Gaza and the West Bank. There is a real danger that this could occur.
Despite my instinctive belief that one should try to negotiate a way out of this dilemma no matter the odds, I have concluded that the only way out of this mess is to separate Hamas' entire military and political leadership from the oppressed citizenry of Gaza (and yes, it is absolutely a mischaracterization of fact to assert that Hamas is the legitimate ruler of Gaza). Easier said than done you say. But as long as Hamas rules Gaza, no amount of cajoling is going to end the vicious cycle of terror that Hamas is inflicting first and foremost on its own beaten-down Palestinian victims as well as on Israel.
Just as Yassir Arafat was forced into Tunisian exile in 1982 after he transformed Lebanon into a mess, so, too, must Hamas' leadership share a similar fate until such time as they either die clinging to their nightmarish vision for the future of Palestine, or end their campaign of terror once and for all.
Ultimately, the Palestinian people deserve better than what Hamas offers them. Hamas has rejected every opportunity to be more accommodating not only with Israel, but also with every Arab mediator that has tried to mend Hamas' fences with the Palestinian Authority. That speaks volumes about Hamas' true intentions. As long as Hamas rules its Gaza roost with its iron fist, any hope for a two state solution is just not in the cards. Hamas plays with a crooked deck.
If not merely for the sake of Israel's right to live in peace and security, but also for the right of Palestinians to have a brighter tomorrow, its time to force Hamas' leadership out of Gaza. Preferably, this will be done not as a result of further destruction to Gaza or to Israeli southern cities, but due to unyielding international pressure that forces Hamas to relinquish its stranglehold on Gaza. Better for Hamas leaders to live in forced exile rather than enable them to block any hope for ending Gaza's misery and establishing a Palestinian homeland existing side-by-side with a safe and secure Israel.
For those shedding crocodile tears for Hamas, its time to take a good hard look at what it has wrought on the Palestinians of Gaza.