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By Barry Rubin

An isolated fragment of news, a tragic story, or just another act of terrorism? What’s necessary, however, is to fit events into a broader picture and so it is with the latest attack by Hamas, killing four Israelis driving near Hebron.

What does this mean? What’s it all about? It’s a signal, timed for the restart of direct negotiations, that Hamas will subvert by terror any progress toward Israel-Palestinian peace. Hamas said so explicitly, calling the attack as also being against those “led astray by the illusion of negotiations” and reminding the PA that its “natural choice…is jihad and resistance.”

President Barack Obama called the attack “senseless slaughter” against which the United States would “push back.”

But terrorism is hardly “senseless.” On the contrary, it is part of a very sensible strategy that often works in its shorter-term goals.

And how can Obama say the U.S. government is going to “push back” since only a few weeks ago he handed a huge victory to the organizer of this attack, Hamas, by pressuring Israel into reducing sanctions on the Gaza Strip while himself granting about $300 million to pay salaries (through the PA) to civil servants in Gaza who implement Hamas’s policies?

As mediators and media talk about how peace is in everyone’s interest, this attack reminds us that it is not so clearly in the interest of the Palestinian Authority (PA) which faces massive public opposition (which it has so often fomented) against compromise, internal opposition to making any compromises (among a majority of Fatah leaders), and also the determined opposition of Hamas.

The attack signals to the Palestinian public that “resistance” is an alternative accorded much more honor and respectability even in PA propaganda and ideology. It is Hamas’s counter-campaign to show that violence is preferable. And why not? Murdering Israelis is right in the dominant Palestinian political culture, is made to seem heroic, and doesn’t carry heavy penalties either for the groups doing it or individual terrorists carrying it out.

Here’s one more proof. The PA has just honored a Palestinian mother as a great role model. What is her claim to fame? Four sons in Israeli jails for having tried or succeeded in killing Israeli civilians. How many hundred examples would you like from the last year or two of this positive reinforcement for such deeds?

This Hebron attack also reminds Israel that the PA is unable (and in part unwilling) to stop terrorism. Thus, the creation of a Palestinian state at this time and in these circumstances would not necessarily be a solution ending the conflict but merely a new stage of cross-border attacks, official anti-Israel incitement, and growing power for Hamas and its radical allies within the Fatah group that rules the West Bank.

The radical side, both in Fatah and Hamas, will be aided by Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and revolutionary Islamist forces which this U.S. government has more often engaged than confronted. If that side appears to be winning, why shouldn’t Palestinians join or at least cheer for it?

Moreover, nowadays such acts of terrorism don’t generate real international support for Israel but often suggestions that it should make more concessions faster in order to “end” the violence. Indeed, the New York Times’s opening paragraph on the attack actually succeeded in blaming Israel as the culprit after four of its own innocent civilians are murdered:

“The killing of four Israeli settlers, including a pregnant woman, in the West Bank on Tuesday evening rattled Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the eve of peace talks in Washington and underscored the disruptive role that the issue of Jewish settlements could play in the already fragile negotiations.”

Not the disruptive role of Palestinian terrorism but of Jewish settlements! But guess what? there has been a freeze on building new settlements or geographically expanding existing ones now for 17 years. There has been a freeze on constructing new buildings on existing settlements for almost one year.

There is not now, nor apparently will there ever be, a freeze on Palestinian terrorism. Nor will the Western states demand one, by which I mean not stopping every attack but making a maximum effort to do so, truly punishing (not just for the sin of bad timing!) those involved in such attacks, and demeaning rather than extolling that behavior.

Instead, we are apparently going to see a repeat of the pattern that occurred during the 1993-2000 peace process era in which Hamas (and at times Fatah) terrorist attacks showed that negotiations heightened rather than reduced the level of violence. Peace is preferable but the idea of pressing for formal peace as a panacea is just flat wrong.

Does that mean talks, peace, or a two-state solution are bad? Not at all. But they must be conducted with eyes open, strategies clear, and policies suitably tough. Part of a proper approach would include a concerted effort to subvert Hamas and even overthrow the regime in the Gaza Strip. Instead, in recent months, Hamas has won a major victory: Western pressure on Israel to reduce sanctions to a level ensuring the long-term survival of a terrorist statelet in the Gaza Strip.

Equally, even if the PA cracks down and arrests Hamas activists on the West Bank, these people will soon be released and the organization knows that it suffers no huge or real costs for continued terrorism. The only recourse Israel has to ensuring the terrorists are punished or even properly interrogated is to launch a raid and capture them, an action impossible at present since it would be portrayed internationally as “endangering” the direct negotiations.

For its part, the PA has no interest in crushing the terrorists–who often come, after all, from its own ranks and payrolls–but in merely shutting them up for a short while to avoid blame for upsetting the talks. In the PA’s eyes, the terrorists are not guilty of a terrible crime but merely of bad timing. After all, when Fatah PA decides to launch a new intifada some day these men will be allies again.

It is revealing that the State Department’s background briefing on the direct negotiations by a senior administration official explained that Hamas will only be able to join the talks if it ceased terrorism and accepted Israel’s continued existence. There was not one word about pressures on Hamas for refusing to do so, nor on the PA for generating incitement to violence. All carrots, no sticks.

Regarding terrorism, we see the same thing. Some very nice words from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton about how terrible terrorism is and how, “The forces of terror and destruction cannot be allowed to continue.” But, in fact, U.S. policy is not doing much to stop them except arguing that diplomatic efforts toward peace will do so. And when she adds that the PA represents “those Palestinians who themselves have rejected a path of violence in favor of a path of peace.”

It is the fallacy of that statement that undermines her whole argument. The West Bank Palestinians and PA have not rejected the path of violence in principle, in fact the fact that they won’t walk down the path of peace is due both to their hopes of finding violence useful in the future and their fear that too much moderation will bring violence (from their own people whose anger and hatred they keep stoking, their more radical and rival colleagues, and Hamas) against themselves.

Again, I’m glad that the PA is far more negotiations-oriented than Hamas or the pre-1993 (Oslo agreement) PLO. Achieving a two-state outcome to the conflict is also clearly the diplomatic road to take. Yet the way this is being done and the ideas guiding the U.S. and European approach will ensure that the whole effort is a show, not a solution.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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