Gabrielle Rifkind: No matter what Israel and Hamas do to each other, the solution won't be rational

Statesmen and academics should be asked to nurture a vision

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In areas of conflict, traumatised communities over-react, their past experience defining the present. Israel has delivered a knee-jerk reaction which responds to its citizens' fears and anxieties but does not contain the escalating violence. Its actions reflect a belief that if it plays the "hard man", the other side will make the necessary concession.

The kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and the country's responses in Gaza and Lebanon are a symptom of a much deeper malaise, born of past violence. We are seeing traumatised communities responding out of fear, anger, rage and humiliation. We just need to listen to the heated tones of Israelis and Palestinians. Rational discourse and long-term decisions are hijacked by the pain of cumulative conflict.

Those whose view of human nature is based on "hard power" believe that by assertion of military muscle, the other side will make concessions. The "soft power" adherents say it is only by understanding why people are enraged, and what lies beneath the surface, that there is a chance of an end to conflict. This underlies the "human security" approach that I use in my conflict resolution work.

This particular conflict is deeply marred by misunderstanding and misreading of motivation of the other side. There is little room for the kind of nuanced communication committed to understanding the motivations and agendas of the other.

This was graphically highlighted by the election of the Hamas government. Here, there was no direct contact between Israel and the new government. There was no appetite in Israel for engagement, and as a consequence, no listening to the more subtle agendas that were being put forward, not least the calls for a long-term ceasefire, a bilaterally negotiated agreement to the end of violence. Had there been an official third-party mechanism acting as a conduit, shuttling between the two parties, more wise judgements may have been made.

The escalation of the crisis with Hizbollah's kidnapping of two more Israeli soldiers cannot be understood outside the context of what had already been happening in Gaza. The Hamas government was elected in January. Immediately, conditions were placed on the new government by the international community demanding they renounce violence, recognise Israel and keep previous peace accords agreed between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The new Hamas government was not ready to make these concessions, so international funding to the region was severely restricted.

As a result, a humanitarian crisis began to brew in Palestine, with 180,000 civil servants without pay and persistent closing of Gaza's borders to most food, medical supplies and even fuel. The new government also refused to act against the firing of rockets into Israel by Palestinian militants.

But multiple voices were coming from the Hamas leadership, including moderate elements calling for a long-term ceasefire. These words were drowned by Israel's demands that Hamas be treated as a terrorist organisation and were not to be communicated with until they agreed to Israeli demands. Then Israel launched air attacks to deter the missile fire, causing many Palestinian civilian casualties.

As Israel continued its targeted assassination of militant leaders in Gaza, an Israeli soldier was kidnapped by the militant wing of Hamas. Within two days, Israel responded by massing troops on the Gaza border, firing missiles that targeted two bridges and wiped out the electricity supply. Eight Hamas cabinet members and 20 members of the assembly were arrested by the Israelis. An inexperienced civilian government in Israel with no military credentials has overcompensated by continuing to flex its muscle in Gaza. In response to the Hizbollah kidnappings, Israel called them "an act of war" with "very painful and far-reaching" consequences. Now the Hizbollah leader is talking of "open war". The region is at risk of being ablaze.

The history of territorial disputes suggests resolutions are seldom the result of rational, bi-national negotiation. At these times of crisis, the sides are intensely engaged with passion, heat and rage, and this leads to the escalation of the crisis. There is little room for circumspect evaluation that analyses the spiralling of violence and mayhem in the region. For this reason, we need the outside intervention of a cooler, analytical eye.

In the first instance, the US needs to intervene to impose a ceasefire. Only the Americans have the influence to restrain Israel at this point. But this is only a short-term crisis intervention; structures need to be put in place for a more sustainable long-term peace process. Without that, the present situation could lead to a wider war, involving the greater Middle East and giving huge stimulus to terrorism.

The international community needs to create a mechanism which includes all those involved. Israel's proposed unilateralist moves in the West Bank would not be opposed by Hamas; in fact, it would welcome them. It would not mean an end of conflict, but would constitute conflict management, not resolution. It would not result in offering the Palestinians a state that they saw as economically and socially viable. The vision of Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is that the security barrier is Israel's putative border. He privately speaks of a withdrawal that would leave Israel with 6 to 8 per cent of the West Bank. This would not end the violence.

A framework needs to be established for a sustainable peace process. Such an initiative would need the authority to employ a group of wise elder statesman diplomats and academic specialists. They would be employed full-time on the Palestine-Israel conflict and their job would be to think long-term and nurture a vision that goes beyond immediate crisis-management.

We only need to look at world politicians currently consumed by the G8 and energy security to see we need more focused attention on the crisis. The proposed group would be shuttle-diplomats, talking in depth to all parties involved, bridging and easing communication. There may be little appetite for outside intervention among the parties, not least because of the chaos of Iraq. But not taking responsibility for applying brakes to the crisis could lead to even greater mayhem.

Gabrielle Rifkind, a practising psycotherapist, is a consultant to the Oxford Research Group and a specialist in conflict resolution. She is co-author of 'Making Terrorism History'

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