Hostilities resumed

Israel’s declaration that the Gaza Strip is an ”enemy entity” is yet another alarming development in the ever-fractious situation in the Middle East. The move is intended to warn of, and ostensibly to justify, a cut-off of fuel and electricity to the territory — home to 1,5-million people already living in appalling conditions which have been fully described in a succession of United Nations and other reports.

It is hard to disagree with the immediate response of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, that any such action would constitute ”collective punishment”. That is clearly banned under international law, although it has been used freely against the Palestinians for the past 40 years.

The timing of the announcement by Israel’s powerful security Cabinet, following ”extensive legal consultations”, came during the latest visit to Jerusalem by Condoleezza Rice — though few Palestinians will draw comfort from the fact that the United States Secretary of State was assured by the Israelis that such steps ”would not affect the humanitarian situation in the territory”.

How could they not? Gaza is already virtually sealed off from the outside world, a fact identified only this week as the main cause of its misery, malnutrition and massive unemployment. It is hard to see what any new punishment could achieve — even if it were justified.

Part of the story is that there is mounting pressure inside Israel to do something decisive about Gaza, abandoned unilaterally by Ariel Sharon in 2005 after 38 years because the disadvantages of holding on to it outweighed any possible benefits. But the retreat from the strip, in the absence of any agreement with the Palestinians, has not brought Israelis the security they crave.

Palestinian rocket attacks, mostly on the Negev town of Sderot, have become a manageable irritant — 12 people have been killed in seven years. But the recent Qassam hit on a nearby army training camp, where 69 young soldiers were injured as they slept in their tents, significantly raised the stakes.

In the red-hot politics of this conflict, there will always be those who will lay all the blame, all of the time, on one side or the other — whatever its enemies do. But no Israeli government can afford to ignore its own citizens: thus it is easier to threaten (paying lip-service to quasi-legal justification) to cut off fuel and power to Gaza than to launch a large-scale military incursion that would cost many lives and play badly on TV screens across the world.

Israel may also be calculating that punishing ordinary Gazans will turn them against Hamas, although it could well have the opposite effect. Hamas itself has been isolated since taking control of the strip in June. It rarely carries out rocket attacks, which are largely the work of the more radical Islamic Jihad, though it has done little to halt them — and Israel still holds it responsible.

Watching gloomily from the West Bank town of Ramallah, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, is still seething at the Islamists but desperate to avoid a new Israeli offensive. That would cast him as an outright collaborator and set back efforts to restore some kind of Palestinian unity, as well as bury the admittedly slim hopes for November’s planned peace conference.

The irony is that Hamas, which often displays a canny pragmatism, has been signalling in recent days that it is ready to respect a ceasefire. Israel’s latest threat makes it ever more urgent to achieve one, and to make it stick. Only then can there be any hope that negotiations might — one day — end this corrosive conflict. — Â

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Ian Black
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