Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens, and that includes doing what it can to stop the Palestinian militants of Hamas from firing rockets into Israel from their havens in Gaza. Hamas, having already broken a six-month truce with Israel, opted not to continue it, forcing Israel's hand. But five days into the offensive, it is time for Israel to show some restraint. The death toll from the fighting should cause both sides to pull back while they can. The United Nations and the Arab states need to push quickly for a cease-fire. Having the body count mount will only embolden hard-liners on both sides and push the Middle East peace process further off-track.
More than 370 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched an air assault Saturday against Hamas government and military targets. Israel said it was targeting command facilities in an effort to curb Hamas' ability to fire into southern Israel. Still, at least 64 deaths in Gaza were civilians, according to the United Nations. Four Israelis have been killed in reprisal attacks by Hamas. The security and humanitarian crisis is deteriorating on both sides. In Gaza, civilians are without food and shelter, the hospitals are overflowing and Hamas gunmen are executing suspected Israeli collaborators. The Islamic group has fired more than 250 rockets and mortars since Saturday, and the shells cover a larger range and are deadlier than ever. Up to one-tenth of Israel's 7-million people are vulnerable to rocket attack.
Israeli officials hinted late Tuesday they might allow a 48-hour truce to create a diplomatic opening for a cease-fire. That would help if Arab leaders, who are meeting today in emergency session in Cairo, make clear to Hamas that they will not support its attacks on Israel. The Arab world needs to prod the radical group toward the negotiating table.
For Israel, a cease-fire is an opportunity to reopen its crossings into Gaza and allow in medicine, food and other needed supplies. The world community needs to see a true separation between Israel punishing Hamas and it punishing the Palestinian people. Ramping up the military offensive against Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, would only harden anti-Israeli prejudice. Israel needs public opinion to create the diplomatic pressure to close Hamas' weapons supply. It is more likely to get it if the world sees Hamas as the side that broke the truce and not the victims of disproportionate force.
The most troubling aspect of the fighting is that it compounds rather than addresses the core conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians. It gives Hamas another chance to show itself as the only Arab weapon against the Israelis and Israeli leaders the chance to flex their muscles after a humiliating war against Hezbollah fighters in 2006. That the crisis is not over settlements or the status of Jerusalem gives some dimension to the barriers outstanding to a Mideast peace. First among them is a neighbor who believes terrorizing civilians is in any way acceptable.