Israel is still fighting for independence

On May 14, Israel will celebrate 60 years of independence. It’s never been an easy independence. Israel is surrounded by regional instability and Israelis have needed to regularly fight their neighbors to maintain their independence — if not their very existence.

Despite those challenges, Israel has managed to retain a vibrant democracy for six decades.

That dichotomous existence was clear on my latest trip to Israel last month, when I toured Sderot on the Gaza border and met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other Israeli officials to discuss ongoing U.S.-Israeli relations and Israel’s security.

If there were an easy fix to Israel’s security situation, it would already have come about. But the situation is even more complicated now because of the split in the Palestinian government. If Israel should reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority, it would still have to fend off the terrorist-controlled government of Gaza. Hamas must be dealt with before any agreement with the Palestinian Authority would have teeth.

Responding to Hamas’ rocket attacks on Sderot, other border towns, and increasingly into deeper Israeli territory is difficult, at best, for Israel. Hamas uses mosques, schools, hospitals and other civilian facilities as cover for rocket launch sites. Should Israel respond by attacking those sites, there would undoubtedly be civilian casualties. The international outcry — particularly if the casualties included women and children — would be against Israel, not against the terrorists firing rockets at homes and schools in Israel.

There are calls in some sectors of the international community for the United States to enter into discussions with Hamas and, indeed, some recent news reports suggest some third-party talks may be in the works, possibly involving Egypt.

While I won’t dismiss out of hand sending U.S. demands through a friendly country, experience dictates that negotiating with terrorists is counterproductive.

With that in mind, Egypt could help the peace process by closing down the smuggling corridor between Gaza and Egypt. Tunnels built by Hamas and other criminal elements are used to smuggle supplies and arms from inside Egypt. While it may not be feasible to find and bury all the tunnels, Egypt could set up inspection stations on the surface roads leading to Gaza, which would severely curtail, if not shut down, the smuggling operation.

The United States is committed to Israel’s security and survival. In the past couple of weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney have traveled to the region in an attempt to reinvigorate the peace process. The House of Representatives reconfirmed that commitment earlier this month when I and 403 of my colleagues voted to condemn Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Likewise, we are committed to the two-state solution as outlined at the Annapolis conference that was hosted by President Bush last November.

But those can only be achieved when terrorism is defeated.

Sixty years is long enough for a nation to fight to retain its independence. Our Arab partners, including Egypt and Jordon, need to join with the United States to pressure Hamas and other terrorist groups to cease and desist.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Thousand Oaks) is a member of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.