Byline: Mark Almond
OUTSIDERS look on with baffled dismay as Israel's high-tech air force pounds crowded Palestinian tenements in Gaza. We are baffled, too, by why Hamas guerrillas have provoked such an attack on their own people by firing mortars into southern Israel.
Sadly, both sides' actions make sense, even though neither can win this battle. Israel masters the skies, but the swarms of angry young men crowded into the Gaza Strip provide limitless recruits for guerrilla attacks over the border.
Israel's F-16s have tried to decapitate the leadership of the Hamas movement, but every smart bomb that kills a terrorist leader simply spawns dozens more to take revenge. Yet the revenge can kill only ordinary Israelis. The Palestinians cannot defeat the Israeli army in a pitched battle.
The Gaza Strip's isolated position is a product of the war between infant Israel and the Arab states in 1948. Egypt conquered the area, but Palestinian refugees poured into it from Israel.
In 1967, Israel took both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the Six- Day War but never annexed them to Israel itself - unlike the eastern part of Jerusalem. The Israelis pulled out of Gaza in 2005. Ideally Israel would have handed back these occupied territories to a
Palestinian government prepared to make peace. But in the only democratic elections ever held among Palestinians, in 2006, Hamas swept the board in the Gaza Strip and then swept its local rivals out of the territory.
Its fighters resumed a cat-andmouse border war with Israel.
Ironically, the targets of Palestinian mortars have been the kibbutzim nearest Gaza, which are home to Israelis who tend to vote for the more dove-ish Labour Party.
By riling them, Hamas is heading off the chance of a moderate Labour-led Israeli government.
There is more irony: both Israel and Gaza are among the few democratic parts of the Middle East. But democracy makes peace more difficult to come by.
In the run-up to a general election, few Israeli would-be prime ministers want to appear 'soft' on terrorism. And Hamas won the election in Gaza by voicing its bitter resentment of Israel.
Politics in Israel is now becoming a competition to be the most hawkish. Hamas welcomes that process because an Israeli leader willing to compromise just might undercut its support.
The tragedy of the Arab-Israeli conflict …