When demands are made of Israel to halt its military activities in Gaza, a brief historical reminder is in order.
In September 2005, Israel vacated Gaza, dismantled all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and did not leave a shred of a presence there.
In January 2006, rule over Gaza passed to the Hamas government under Ismail Haniyeh. Instead of bringing investors to Gaza, the Hamas government brought the guerrilla-warfare trainers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Instead of launching economic projects, this government launched rockets every day at Israeli towns and villages across the border. They smuggled in vast amounts of explosives, weapons and rockets; they prepared themselves for battle.
In June 2007, in a brutal and bloody military coup, Hamas took control of Gaza and soon killed or chased out the leaders of President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement. Gaza became nothing less than a military base for Iran.
Up until the Hamas takeover, 750 trucks would cross the border each day with imports and exports. As Israel's deputy defense minister at the time, I was in charge of this activity and promoted this trade with Gaza, since the border crossings were being controlled by Abbas's Presidential Guard, not by terrorists. The Hamas takeover is what in effect locked the gates of Gaza and forced its residents to suffer.
The rain of rockets on the citizens of Israel intensified. The cease-fire that lasted from June until Dec. 19 was used by Hamas to increase its military strength -- mainly to smuggle in Grad-type rockets from Iran, which have a range of 20 miles. In recent days, these missiles have struck cities such as Ashdod, Israel's main port, and Beersheva, the capital of Israel's south. No sovereign state would have resigned itself to having its cities -- cities such as Houston or Atlanta -- bombarded. No sovereign state would allow itself to be hit by even a single missile. That is the reason for the military campaign that Israel launched this week in a series of aerial strikes.
But the campaign's objective is not to end the rocket fire. The true objective should be the end of Hamas rule in Gaza. Israel cannot resign itself to having a missile and terror base five miles from one of its principal cities, Ashkelon.
Gaza's Palestinians, too, in telephone and e-mail conversations, are expressing their urgent wish to end the nightmare that Hamas has imposed on them. An end to the Hamas regime in Gaza is essential for them, as well. It is not possible to govern Gaza in the absence of close cooperation with Israel on issues of trade, energy, environment, water and health. Those who reject the legitimacy of Israel can't provide a normal life for Gaza's 1.5 million residents, who on average are living on $2 a day.
Israel could bring about a collapse of the Hamas regime in Gaza by means of a lengthy, large-scale ground campaign. With a clear exit strategy lacking, this is not an appealing option for us. At the moment, unfortunately, this is the only option available.
Yet there is another way. Those demanding a cease-fire must produce a comprehensive solution, a "package" containing the following elements:
· Full dismantling of the military power of Hamas in Gaza, including destruction of all stockpiles of rockets and missiles.
· Transfer of control over border-crossings between Gaza and Egypt and between Gaza and Israel to the Palestinian Authority government of Salam Fayyad.
· Until the elections to the Palestinian parliament and the presidency in January 2010, Gaza is to be run by a civilian administration appointed by the government in Ramallah.
· Augmented Egyptian supervision of the border between Gaza and Egypt.
· The return of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Such an agreement will require international and regional support. Countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia can play an important role. Syria, if it uses its influence over the Hamas leadership that is comfortably hosted by Damascus, can win points toward any future discussions with the United States and Israel.
In the absence of such a package, the fighting in Gaza will not end. Israel has no reason to end it.
Ephraim Sneh, a former member of the Israeli cabinet and deputy defense minister from 1999 to 2001 and from 2006 to 2007, is chairman of the Strong Israel party.