Fight Fire With a Cease-Fire

Now, after the heavy blow that Israel has dealt to the Gaza Strip, we would do best to halt, turn to the leaders of Hamas and tell them: Until last Saturday, we restrained ourselves in responding to the thousands of Qassam rockets fired at us. Now you know how severe the retaliation can be. So as not to add to the death and destruction that has already taken place, we intend, unilaterally and absolutely, to hold our fire for the next 48 hours.

Even if you continue to fire on Israel, we will not respond by resuming combat. We will grit our teeth, just as we did in the days and months before our attack. We will not be drawn into using force.

Furthermore, we hereby invite all concerned countries, nearby and distant, to mediate between us and you, in order to reinstate the cease-fire that ended earlier this month. If you also cease hostilities, we will not renew them. If you continue to shoot while we hold ourselves back, we will respond accordingly when the 48 hours end. But even then we will leave the door open to negotiations to re-establish the truce, and even seek a broader agreement.

This should be Israel’s next move. Is it possible, or are we already captives of the all-too-familiar ritual of war?

Until last Saturday, Israel — under the military leadership of Defense Minister Ehud Barak — acted with impressive level-headedness. We must not lose our perspective now, in the heat of battle. We must not forget, even for a moment, that the inhabitants of Gaza will continue to live on our borders and that sooner or later we will need to achieve neighborly relations with them.

We must not under any circumstances strike with such violence, even though Hamas has for years made life excruciating for the Israelis who live on Gaza’s perimeter, even though Hamas’s leaders have rebuffed every Israeli and Egyptian endeavor to achieve a compromise and prevent a conflagration. Restraint, and our duty to protect the lives of Gaza’s innocent inhabitants, must remain our commitment today, precisely because Israel’s power is almost limitless compared to that of Hamas.

Israel’s leaders know that, given the state of the Gaza Strip, it will be difficult to achieve a total, unambiguous military victory. Instead, we are more likely to return to the state of ambiguity we know so well from Lebanon. Israel will strike at Hamas and get struck, strike and get struck, get caught in tit-for-tat snares without achieving any real or vital aims. Despite our military strength, we will be unable to extricate ourselves, and will find that we have been carried away by a tide of destruction.

So let us stop. Hold our fire. Let us attempt to act against our usual reflexes. Against the deadly logic of military power and the dynamic of escalation. We can always start shooting again. The war will not run away, as Mr. Barak himself said two weeks ago. If we demonstrate that we can do this, we will not lose international support. We will gain even more if we invite the international and Arab communities to intervene and mediate. (In this regard, it is encouraging that on Tuesday Mr. Barak expressed interest in a French proposal for a cease-fire.)

True, Hamas will then enjoy a moratorium in which it can reorganize, but it has had long years to do that anyway, so another two days will not make much difference. In contrast, such a calculated cease-fire could lead Hamas to change its mode of response. It could offer the group an honorable way of extricating itself from its own trap.

And one more inevitable thought. Had we taken this approach in July of 2006, after Hezbollah kidnapped two of our soldiers — had we held our fire then, after our initial retaliatory strike in Lebanon and declared that we were waiting for a day or two to calm the situation and give mediation a chance — we would likely be in a better position today. That, too, is a lesson that Israel’s government should have learned from that war. In fact, it is the most important lesson we must learn.

David Grossman, an Israeli writer.

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