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As of this writing, the relationship between Israel and Palestine has taken perhaps its most dangerous turn since the Israelis made their controversial decision to leave Gaza in August 2005. To my mind, that agonizing decision was, at the time, the lesser of two evils. For Israel to govern Gaza, which had only around 8,500 Jewish settlers, the Israelis ran the risk of becoming a hostile occupying force with little or no local legitimacy. Using powerful force to respond to concerted attacks from Gaza after pulling out was the better alternative. Once Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, it quickly initiated military attacks on Israel in 2008, 2012, and 2014, with large losses of life on all sides.
In this instance, as in all others, it is inappropriate to posit moral and legal parity between the two sides. In all cases, Hamas was the aggressor. It is a moral blunder to equate Israel’s targeted self-defense with Hamas’s aggression. To be sure, in practice there are often complex ethics that challenge the imagination, but the key to understanding Gaza is to avoid the mistake of assuming that any balance in the number of deaths and casualties offers evidence of moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas. As Bret Stephens recently wrote in the New York Times, the moral imbalance between Israel and Hamas looms as a huge obstacle to any two-state solution in the Middle East.
So long as Hamas is active, the Israelis cannot afford to deploy the same strategy of calculated withdrawal on the West Bank that they used fitfully in Gaza. Gaza can be isolated by land and sea. The West Bank, however, borders Jordan, through which other Israeli enemies like Iran and Syria can easily set up hostile military positions close to both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.