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Israel-Gaza conflict: The suffering continues for lack of a peace broker

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure for an escalation of the ground war

Last Sunday, five days before the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, but when the Palestinian death toll had already reached 160, Barack Obama and David Cameron spoke. The subsequent communiqué said the two leaders discussed Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq and the nuclear talks with Iran. There was no mention of Gaza.

Maybe the subject came up but was kept private. But the omission of any mention of the conflict already dominating UK and US headlines, somehow symbolises Western inertia about the plight of Gaza's 1.8 million inhabitants, one that was intense even before the horror now unfolding in the territory.

That inertia has largely prevailed since 2006, when Hamas unexpectedly won free elections sanctioned by the Bush White House and was then boycotted by the US and its allies; through the siege that demolished Gaza's productive economy, which was imposed by Israel after Hamas's seizure of control in the brief civil war in 2007; through Egypt's closure of the smuggling tunnels that were the main lifeline for Gazans; and through the recent formation by Fatah and an increasingly isolated Hamas of a "unity" government which the West did nothing to promote in the teeth of determined Israeli opposition.

The taboo on Hamas, which the US says is a terrorist organisation, explains why Washington has not helped Qatar to fund the payment of 43,000 public servants. It's also why the US--and the EU--can be ruled out as a mediator – a job left to Egypt. But Cairo, which wants to see Hamas – an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood – neutralised as much if not more so than Israel, is not delivering: its ceasefire proposal was rejected by Hamas for not meeting its demands.

This conflict is therefore at a crossroads. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure from the even harder right for an escalation of the ground war which they imagine could eradicate Hamas's military capability, and might mean a full-scale occupation. On the other hand, a ceasefire would allow Israel to say it had achieved its objective of destroying tunnels and degrading other Hamas capabilities. This would mean a return to the relative calm under which Hamas largely halted rocket fire, including by wilder groups than itself.

To judge by Hamas comments yesterday, it will not halt the rockets without getting something beyond an end to the killing. Neither side can want the conflict to run past the start of Eid al-Fitr, on 28 July, though if a rocket hits – say – an Israeli kindergarten, the chances of a ceasefire will be all the slimmer. Israel is, anyway, surely not going to meet Hamas's demand for the release of prisoners arrested in the West Bank after the murder of three Israeli teenagers. Any further efforts may have to find ways of paying public servants but more especially easing Gaza's collective imprisonment, probably by opening the southern crossing at Rafah. Israel – and Egypt – are likely to insist that this be manned by Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority security forces. Which could only be accepted, if at all, by Hamas under the auspices of the "unity" government.

But who can pull this off? Gazan distrust of Egypt as an honest broker now extends to circles beyond Hamas itself. Neither Egypt nor Israel want it to be Turkey or Qatar. In such unpropitious circumstances, Ban Ki-Moon is heading for the region. No one would normally bet on the UN Secretary General as a mediator, least of all in the Middle East. But right now he may be the best hope there is.