One of the more chilling yet routine phrases used to describe the fighting between Israel and Hamas in recent days is “the current round.” As in: “We don’t expect many more missiles to hit Tel Aviv during the current round.” The term treats warfare like a hurricane—randomly arriving, taking its toll, then departing, but leavingbehind the expectation that something similar will return another day.
Ostensibly, the latest fighting began with Israel’s targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari, the commander of what is commonly referred to as Hamas’s military wing, even though what Jabari commanded is neither military nor a wing. Normal militaries don’t target civilians or hide behind their own people. And Jabari didn’t command a “wing” of Hamas, as if there was any daylight between him and the rest of the terror group’s leadership.
But a one-sided fight long predated the missile strike on Jabari: Hamas had been firing round after round of rockets on Israeli towns around Gaza for the better part of a decade. Israeli children have grown up with the sounds of sirens telling them they have 15 seconds to take cover until a missile hits. When the pace of the shelling increased in recent weeks, the Israelis finally stuck back.
My family lives in Jerusalem, about two hours’ drive from the Gaza Strip, so we had never experienced the feeling of running from a missile hurtling our way. But this week my daughter and I spent a night in Beersheba, Israel’s fourth-largest city, taking part in a charity bike ride for a Jerusalem hospital that rehabilitates children, some of whom have been severely injured in terrorist attacks.
Beersheba isn’t known for being in range of missile attacks from Gaza, but as the 500 bike riders gathered for dinner on Wednesday, we saw the flashes of Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system intercepting Hamas rockets in the sky. Later, at the hotel, we heard the city’s “code red” sirens go off five times during the night. Given Beersheba’s distance from Gaza, we had a relatively luxurious 60 seconds to move groggily to the stairwell, the hotel’s designated safe area.
No one was hurt in Beersheba that night. Iron Dome, a system developed in Israel and financed partly with U.S. assistance, no doubt saved lives. But on Thursday a missile that got through the system killed three Israelis in an apartment in Kiryat Malachi, a town not far away.
In areas out of Hamas’s striking distance, Israelis are generally focused on the human side of the conflict—for example, opening their homes to friends and family from the south who want a break from the missile threat. In the U.S. and among other of Israel’s allies, the focus is also often on the human side of the story, with an emphasis on how to make the violence stop.
Certainly Hamas needs to be reined in. The first step the international community should take is to stop supporting the Hamas government in Gaza. Hamas’smacabre game is to mix its terrorists and rockets in with Palestinian civilians, wait for an Israeli missile aimed at a rocket launcher to kill some of those civilians, and then bask in global condemnation of Israel. But if most governments and the United Nations squarely tagged Hamas as the aggressor responsible for the civilian casualties on both sides and cut off financial support and other aid, Hamas would be deterred as successfully as any Israeli military action could manage.
Yet to focus on Gaza and Hamas alone still doesn’t address the heart of the problem. Before his death Wednesday, Ahmed Jabari had worked to cultivate Hamas networks in places such as Iran, Sudan and Lebanon. When sirens sounded in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in recent days, it was because Hamas was launching Fajr-5 missiles with a range of some 50 miles, considerably more than the usual Hamas rocket. The Fajr-5 is made in Iran. Tehran is the main source of Hamas’s training and of the 200 missiles a day that Hamas has been firing into Israel in recent days.
If Jabari was the hand on the trigger, the arm and the head are in Tehran. Jabari’s death could severely handicap Hamas’s capabilities in the way that Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terror group, still hasn’t fully recovered from Israel’s 2008 killing of its commander, Imad Mughniyeh. And Israel in the past week destroyed most ofHamas’s long-range arsenal, blunting the sword that Iran built to dangle over Israel from the south. But as long as the Tehran regime stays in place, the menace toIsrael—whether in the form of proxy terrorism or the threat of nuclear attack—will continue.
Even the debate over sanctions and military action against Iran’s nuclear program largely misses the point. The solution is for Iran’s regime to fall, and the key to that isn’t sanctions or even military action. It is for Western governments to start saying to Iran’s leaders what they told Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Syria’s Bashar Assad: You must go.
There is a reason why Iran is desperately trying—with money, personnel and weapons—to keep Assad’s brutal regime afloat in Syria. What the mullahs fear most is the Arab Spring spreading to Iran; stopping it in Syria might end the contagion. They know that their regime could implode if the Iranian people rise up, as they did in 2009, and this time around the U.S. and others say “You must go” rather than “Let’s keep talking about your nuclear program.”
Israel, under attack from Hamas, is dealing with just a small sample of what the region and the world will face if Iran’s regime is allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. Military action against Iran’s nuclear program may be necessary if all else fails, but the best way to prevent a nuclear Iran is to take the side of the Iranian people. Such a step wouldn’t require the U.S. to enter another war, but it could well prevent one.
If President Obama hears the call from the Iranian people again, let’s hope that with a second chance he gets it right. The collapse of the Iranian regime would open the greatest opportunities ever for ending not just the “current round” but the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole.
Mr. Singer is co-author, with Dan Senor, of “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” (Twelve, 2009).
A version of this article appeared November 17, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Unseen Hand BehindHamas’s Clash With Israel.