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Israel’s darkest day | Financial Times

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Not since 1948, the year of its founding, has Israel suffered such a brazen and bloody assault within its own borders. The surprise dawn onslaught by Hamas comprised attacks by land, sea and air, and exposed a stunning failure of intelligence by Israel’s security forces. By Sunday, Israel said more than 600 of its civilians had died; Palestinian authorities said at least 370 were killed in Gaza. The abduction into Gaza of more than 100 Israeli hostages has the making of a national trauma. It also severely complicates the options of premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who says his country faces a “long and difficult war”. It is a conflict unlike any Israel has seen for generations — one that raises the chilling spectre of a wider regional conflagration.

Images of bodies in the streets, execution-style killings and fleeing Israelis being hauled off by Hamas have rightly been met with horror and condemnation around the world. Israel has every right to defend itself. It will be tempted to respond with maximum force in a bid to deliver a fatal blow to the militant group, send a message to all its foes, and secure the return of its citizens. Netanyahu will also be pressed by the far-right extremists he brought into his governing coalition for a hardline response.

Yet it hardly seems a coincidence that the intelligence failure constituted by this assault took place when the government was dividing Israeli society with contentious judicial reforms. For Israel’s safety, the premier would be wise to heed calls to form a national unity government and replace extremists with more sober voices.

Either way, the history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that violence begets violence. The prime minister must be calibrated in his response and confine retaliation to military targets in Gaza, hard as this will be in the densely populated strip that has long been blockaded by Israel and Egypt. A broader conflict that serves extremists on all sides would imperil stability across the Middle East.

The entry of Hizbollah would threaten uncontrolled escalation. The Iran-backed militant group in Lebanon possesses a far superior missile and rocket capability to Hamas, and Israel would struggle to contain conflicts on multiple fronts. The West Bank has already been simmering dangerously for more than a year as the occupied territory has endured its worst violence in years with almost daily Israeli raids.

The US, and regional states with contacts to Hamas including Egypt and Qatar, must do all in their power to secure an end to the violence and the release of the Israeli hostages. But international attention must urgently be refocused on the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which long ago fell down the list of priorities.

Washington has intensified efforts to secure a deal for Saudi Arabia to normalise ties with Israel. That push, which was certain to marginalise Palestinians further, may in part have motivated the Hamas attack, though its scale and sophistication suggests it had been in preparation for months or years.

What the assault underlines is that, for all the efforts to normalise Arab states’ ties with Israel, the region can only secure peace if the decades-old Palestinian demand for a viable state is addressed with serious intent. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza, Israel has deployed its might in at least four wars against the group, causing devastation for the strip’s 2mn population.

Each time, Hamas has claimed a victory in striking a blow against a far stronger force, licked its wounds and begun rebuilding for the next conflict. Force alone will not extinguish that threat. As long as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is unresolved, the conditions will remain in place to give birth to the next generation of extremist militants.

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