When Israel was established officially in 1948, the Jordanians bombarded Jerusalem and isolated it even as they killed hundreds of its residents. Yet, throughout that cruel and difficult war, no one called the Jordanians “terrorists.” They were simply the enemy. And in the very midst of such awful bloodshed, ongoing talks were held between the official Israeli and Jordanian delegations. These cease fire talks—brokered by the United Nations—eventually led to a fragile agreement to cease hostilities in 1949.
The Syrians—up until the Six Day War of 1967—bombarded the settlements in northern Galilee, killing or wounding many of its residents, but no one described the Syrians as “terrorists.” They were simply “the enemy.” And from time to time, the two sides met face-to-face to discuss an armistice or cease fire.
Until the Six Day War, terrorists often crossed the Egyptian border and rampaged Israeli settlements that were on the border, but no one called Egypt a "terrorist state," but rather the "enemy."
Although these countries announced their intention to destroy Israel, Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol opened every session of the Knesset by turning to Egypt and Syria with a plea to calm hostilities and make peace agreements.
What accounts for the fact that, after the retreat of Israel from the Gaza Strip, the departure from Israeli settlements and the transfer of authority to Hamas, we continue to characterize Gaza as a terrorist state rather than as an “enemy"? Is it that the expression “a regime of terror” is a stronger expression than “enemy”? Or perhaps the word “terror” signifies that deep down we consider Gaza to be a part of Israel. In that case, its inhabitants wouldn’t be considered “enemies,” but Arabs of the Land of Israel in which bands of terrorists operate? Are we responsible for the welfare of Gazans in a way that we weren't responsible for the Syrians or Egyptians? Is that why we continue to supply electricity and food and oil to them, but won't even negotiate with the Gaza leadership in the way we once negotiated with the Jordanians, Syrians, or Egyptians?
Is it possible that all of the confusion and complexity here derives from the concern that cease-fire meetings with Hamas are likely to weaken Mahmoud Abbas? Yet the killing in Gaza is weakening the Palestinian president even more. Even if we grant that this is the reason for our concern, the question remains: Why, when the Palestinians were united, didn’t we take the opportunity to talk with Hamas, the partner in that coalition, thereby granting legitimacy to the polity governing Gaza?
In my own view, Hamas’s frustration derives from a lack of legitimization by Israel and by much of the world. It is this frustration that leads them to such destructive desperation. That's why we need to grant them status as a legitimate enemy—before we talk about an agreement or, alternatively, about a frontal war. That is how we functioned previously with Arab nations. As long as we label Hamas as a terrorist organization, we cannot achieve a satisfactory cease fire in the south and won't be able to negotiate with the Gaza government on three main issues:
- International supervision of the removal of missiles, and the prohibition on importing them by land, sea, or air
- Opening the borders to Israel so that Gazans may come to Israel for work
- Secure passage between Gaza and the West Bank
The skeptics among us will argue that Hamas would not sit with us for such open negotiations. If so, then we must propose meetings within the framework of the united Palestinian government. And should Hamas reject that proposal, then our war will become a legitimate war in every sense of the word, fought according to the general rules of warfare.
Let us not forget: The Palestinians in Gaza are our permanent neighbors, and we are theirs. We will never halt the bloody destruction by talking of "terror." It will require negotiation, or a war against a legitimate "enemy."
A.B. Yehoshua is an Israeli novelist. William Cutter is a professor at Hebrew Union College.