Storm over Gaza

It is not yet quite a year since Israel withdrew its forces and dismantled illegal settlements in the Gaza Strip, though there has always been a grim inevitability about the offensive — codenamed Summer Rain — that Ehud Olmert unleashed this week to try to free a soldier abducted by Palestinian fighters.

Bombing bridges may have some military logic, but the destruction of a power station seems intended solely to intimidate and inflict collective punishment. No other purpose is achieved by cruelly depriving hundreds of thousands of ordinary Gazans of their electricity supply (and shutting down water pumps) in sweltering heat. The international community, rightly alarmed at this dangerous escalation, can only call for restraint and back whatever diplomatic moves are afoot, through Egyptian mediation, to secure a peaceful outcome to a grave crisis.

Confusion surrounds the precise motives of the gunmen from the Islamist group Hamas and two other armed organisations, who captured the Israeli corporal and killed two other soldiers on Sunday. But it was clearly intended to provoke a reaction, as is the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel.

Homemade Qassam missiles manufactured in secret workshops hidden in refugee camps are not in the same league as Israel’s high-tech (though not always accurate) weaponry, but they can still kill. No government could ignore them.

The brutal truth, though, is that Israel has killed many more Palestinians in its attacks on the Gaza Strip — the distinction between preemption and retaliation now bloodily blurred. Olmert has expressed regret for this, but insists he has no choice.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, cannot control Hamas, which formed a government but has faced an aid cut-off and deep financial crisis since winning January’s elections. To complicate matters, Hamas is divided between local leaders with pragmatic instincts (who have ceased the suicide bombings that were once the movement’s calling card) and a more militant exiled wing in Syria: that leaves Israelis and Palestinians stuck in a cruel impasse in which too many innocents die.

The events of the past few days underline the inescapable conclusion that unilateral Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian territory, which are welcome as far as they go, will not in themselves bring peace. The Gaza Strip may be technically free but it remains a vast prison with the Israelis guarding the gates. Not surprisingly, many of the inmates are desperately unhappy. And the West Bank, the remainder of the rump of mandatory Palestine, is still dotted with Israeli settlements built over the past 39 years.

Olmert, following Ariel Sharon’s Gaza initiative, has pledged to remove isolated outposts and redraw the border (following the controversial ”security fence”) to incorporate the big settlement blocs. That does not guarantee a viable Palestinian state. Only a negotiated peace settlement, which will have to address thorny issues such as refugees and Jerusalem as well as borders, will be able to achieve that.

Ironically, at this menacing moment, prospects for negotiation may have improved — at least on paper — thanks to Abbas’s agreement with Hamas. That paves the way for a Palestinian unity government mandated to talk to the Israelis. Hamas, like the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) 20 years ago, has so far refused to recognise the Jewish state, and there is still ambiguity and disagreement about whether it has indeed done that now.

Yet deeds matter more than words. Implicit recognition coupled with an end to violence would be a solid basis on which to proceed. Polling evidence consistently shows that a majority of Palestinians, many of whom voted for Hamas to protest against a corrupt and ineffective PLO, back negotiations with Israel. The obverse is true of Israelis. But there can clearly be no negotiations until the guns fall silent and the harsh cycle of attack, retaliation and vengeance is broken. — Â

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