Israel has a right and a duty to defend its population against the onslaught of rocket attacks fired by the Palestinian militant group Hamas from territory it controls in the Gaza Strip. But the exchange of fire spiraled out of control over the weekend and stands to worsen what's already a devastating civilian crisis. Egypt and other regional power brokers need to move quickly to put a cease-fire into place. That's the only way to forestall an Israeli invasion of Gaza and to stabilize security in the intermediate term.
The fighting since Wednesday has killed at least 102 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and wounded more than 800, about one-third of them children. At least three Israelis have been killed as of Monday by Palestinian rockets, with dozens more wounded. Israel's defense shield has intercepted hundreds of rockets bound for civilian areas. The fighting has shut down large population centers on both sides, and Israel, which called up 40,000 reservists last week, is massing its forces near the coastal strip. The window for pulling back is closing fast.
Hamas is insisting that Israel lift the blockade on Gaza as a precondition to any cease-fire. That seems unrealistic given Hamas' continued willingness to fire on Israeli civilians. Hamas leaders are clearly trying to exploit the Arab Spring to bring attention to their grievances against Israel. And they are looking at Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, the former head of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a sympathetic go-between. But Morsi should explain as a head of state that no nation can tolerate attacks on its own people. And he should make Hamas understand that inviting Israeli reprisals hurts the cause of Palestinian self-rule in the long run.
Israel broadened its aerial attacks on Hamas targets over the weekend in an effort to rout the leadership structure and the arms resupply machine. But going into Gaza with ground forces would raise the stakes for Israel immensely. No one in the Arab world doubts Israel's ability to ratchet up military pressure, but the end game has to be about fostering a climate that creates distance between the militants and the Palestinian people. That is the only way to achieve mutual security and to build a functional Palestinian state.
The current crisis is another reminder that the international community will have to deal with the Palestinian conflict in one way or another. The United States should help Egypt and the other regional brokers arrange a cease-fire, and then work to bring the Mideast peace process back to life.