AJC Op-Ed: Saving Corporal Shalit

On June 26th, Palestinian terrorists tunneling from the Gaza Strip into Israel attacked an army outpost. Two soldiers were killed, four were wounded, and one, Corporal Gilad Shalit, was kidnapped. In an effort to rescue Cpl. Shalit - and put an end to incessant rocket attacks on southern Israeli cities - Israel launched Operation Summer Rains.

Amidst the dramatic images now emanating from Gaza, the Israeli tanks and the Palestinian fighters, the cry of the wounded and the wail of the aggrieved, the one question that asserts itself again and again is why.

Why, after Israel's total disengagement from the Gaza Strip ten months ago, after the "Zionist occupiers" had un-occupied the territory, are lethal attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets occurring?

Why, as columnist Thomas Friedman aptly put it, isn't the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority putting "all its energy into building a nest for its young there - a decent state and society, with jobs? Instead, it launches hundreds of rockets into Israel," which have been built in a Gaza without an Israeli presence and that have been improved to now reach Israel's major population centers.

It bears repeating that Israel's disengagement was carried out with a view to reducing friction between Israelis and Palestinians and creating better conditions for the advancement of peace. It gave the Palestinian leadership an opportunity to establish its authority in Gaza -- the first time in history Palestinians have had that sovereign power -- and improve living conditions for its citizens.

The chaos that engulfed Gaza long before Operation Summer Rains, indeed which began immediately upon Israel's departure, demonstrated to the world that weapons smuggling, bomb-making, incendiary rhetoric about "liberating" Palestine were deemed more important than creating new opportunities for its people.

The repeated rocket attacks against Israel have caused death and injury, and made daily life intolerable in the cities bordering Gaza. As a sovereign state, Israel is obligated to protect its citizenry and exercise its right of self-defense. What would other countries in a similar situation do? The current military operation was launched only as a last resort, after repeated warnings for release of Gilad Shalit and an end to rocket attacks went unheeded.

Israel is making every effort to minimize civilian casualties, and keep open the passage of goods and humanitarian aid to Gaza. Yet Israel fights an enemy that deliberately operates among civilians, where young boys excitedly tag alongside armed fighters they've been taught to emulate, as if it were some kind of game. Yes, the Palestinians' suffering is real, and unfortunate, but so at this stage is their responsibility for their own plight.

The Hamas-led government has actively supported terror attacks against Israel as part of its openly declared goal of seeking Israel's annihilation and replacement by an Islamic state. It kidnapped a 19 year-old solider from Israeli territory and thrust him into a hellish nightmare of fear. It has shown itself until now to be utterly devoid of humanity. For the sake of Cpl. Shalit, for the sake of their own people, it is high time for the Palestinians to come to their senses and focus on peace and development rather than war and self-inflicted misery.

Aaron Jacob is Associate Director for International Affairs at The American Jewish Committee.