Our political leaders are reassessing their options in the wake of the latest escalation in the South. Israel’s current policy is to react to each new barrage from Gaza by identifying and singling out the specific terrorist organization that fired at our civilians, targeting rocket-launching crews and arms caches.

But this tactic has lost its effectiveness. Our deterrence capabilities have been seriously eroded. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet on Tuesday to weigh a more significant military response. Targeted killings of senior Hamas officials are apparently under consideration, as is ratcheting up land, sea and air attacks. But beyond specific tactical responses to the new wave of aggression from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Israel should consider undertaking a perceptual switch.

As recommended by former national security adviser Giora Eiland, instead of relating to Hamas as an illegitimate entity that wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup in 2007, Israel should view Gaza as a de facto state and Hamas as its de facto political leadership.

Under the 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza, Israel dismantled all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and expelled some 8,000 residents. The stated aim of the move was to end the “occupation” in Gaza and allow Palestinians self-rule. Shortly afterward, Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections.

The PLO-controlled PA continued to rule somewhat chaotically in Gaza after the elections. But when Hamas forcibly seized control, the resulting relatively stable leadership essentially reflected the election results. If the narrowest meaning of democracy is the rule of the majority, Hamas’s rule is more legitimate than most Arab regimes.

SINCE THE fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the border between Gaza and Egypt (the Philadelphi Route) has opened, which means that Israel cannot be considered to be “occupying” Gaza in any way.

Today, Hamas functions as the official political leadership of the entire Gaza Strip. The party sets both domestic policies – such as the institution of Shari’a law – and foreign policy. Just last month, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh represented the entire Gaza population when he welcomed the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. And the emir effectively recognized Hamas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians living in Gaza.

Recognizing Hamas as responsible for what happens inside Gaza – which has clear geographical borders – would serve Israel’s interests. Instead of struggling to distinguish among a myriad of players – Hamas, Salafis and international jihad-affiliated terrorist groups, as well as the Gaza civilian population – Israel should view the “state of Gaza” and its Hamas government as directly responsible for any act of aggression emanating from the territory under its control. Israel’s response to such attacks would, therefore, be directed against the territory of Gaza as a whole.

It makes no sense for Israel to provide an enemy state with electricity, fuel and other goods as it currently does. This makes sense only if a fabricated distinction is made between those in Gaza who fire at Israel and the wider “innocent” population. In reality, however, the majority of Gaza’s population continues to support Hamas, which rules the entire Gaza Strip domestically and represents it internationally.

In contrast, if Hamas provides stability and prevents smaller terrorist groups operating inside Gaza from firing on Israeli civilians, Israel could reciprocate by providing fuel and electricity and keeping trade borders open.

ALLOWING HAMAS to build institutions and develop Gaza’s economy is an Israeli interest. As investments increase and assets are built up in Gaza, Hamas and the entire Gaza population will have more to lose from a military conflict with Israel. And since any aggression emanating from Gaza would be seen as an attack launched by the “State of Gaza,” Israel could legitimately target all state assets in the event of a conflict.

We may not like the Palestinians’ choice of political leadership in Gaza – an anti-Semitic terrorist organization bent on destroying Israel. But by readjusting our perception of Gaza and viewing the territory as a de facto state with an identifiable political leadership, we would be better positioned to achieve a cardinal national interest – maintaining quiet on our southern border.

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