As of Sunday, Gaza Strip terrorists — and “terrorist” fits people who take indiscriminate aim at civilians to achieve political goals — had fired 2,900 rockets at Israel in the past week.

That’s a number worth pausing over, and not just because it has overwhelmed Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense. Gaza is often said to be sealed off and utterly destitute. Yet Hamas, which rules Gaza, seems not to have had much trouble amassing this arsenal nor many qualms about employing it to incur an Israeli response.

The usual rule in life is that if you throw the first punch you can’t complain if you’re counterpunched. The test of Western policy and public opinion is whether they will let Hamas break this rule. The Biden administration has so far passed the test: Both the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have issued statements stressing that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

That’s more than can be said for progressives such as Bernie Sanders, who blamed “the irresponsible actions of government-allied right-wing extremists in Jerusalem” for the fighting without condemnation for Hamas.

Now let’s hope the administration’s attitude lasts. The tactics of Hamas are to house its arsenals in schools and mosques, set up headquarters in the basements of hospitals, and fire missiles from sites next to apartment buildings and hotels housing foreign journalists. The idea is to keep Israel from returning fire or, if it does, to reap the propaganda benefits of wrecked buildings, human casualties and “disproportionate” death counts.

The cynicism is breathtaking. It ought to be widely condemned as a form of terrorism against ordinary Palestinians, whose suffering is as central to Hamas’ global purposes as the suffering of Israeli civilians. But if past experience is anything to go by, an errant Israeli mortar or missile will mistakenly hit a civilian target, generating claims of Israeli war crimes and intense pressure for Jerusalem to “de-escalate” and seek a cease-fire.

The result would be a political victory for Hamas, achieved at a heavy price in Palestinian lives and also at the expense of Palestinian moderates, who would look weak or foolish for opposing violent “resistance.”

What can’t be emphasized enough, especially among those who think of themselves as pro-Palestinian: If you want a Palestinian state to succeed, you must also want Hamas to be defeated. Hamas’ sole aim for over 30 years has been to turn a difficult but negotiable conflict into a nonnegotiable, zero-sum holy war. That must be proved a loser before Palestinian politics can progress.

By the same token, if you’d like a more moderate cast of Israeli leaders, then the last thing you’d want is for Hamas to emerge emboldened from current fighting. No Israeli government of any ideological stripe is going to concede territory for a Palestinian state that’s likely to look like a larger version of Gaza today — one that terrorizes its neighbors and tyrannizes its people.

Israel made plenty of mistakes in the run-up to the current fighting, including heavy-handed policing in Jerusalem at Ramadan and inadequate policing in Arab-Israeli towns hit by mob violence. But there is a difference in moral weight between Palestinian rockets hitting Israeli civilians by design and Israeli missiles hitting Palestinian civilians inadvertently.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the U.S. does not have a vital interest in a Palestinian state: It’s on the “nice” but not “necessary” list of our Middle East priorities. But we do have an interest in nurturing and sustaining an alliance of moderates and modernizers who can offer alternatives to the politics that have dominated the region and spread their pathologies worldwide: terror-sponsoring theocracies like Iran; military dictatorships like Egypt; cult-of-personality regimes like Turkey.

When it comes to Gaza, the goal of U.S. policy is to support Israel’s efforts to defang, deflate and disempower Hamas, not just for the sake of Israelis living under threat but also for Palestinians living in fear. Moderates only thrive when the shadow of terror lifts.

© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY

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