Israel's brutal assault on Gaza only thwarts international efforts to forge a durable peace

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How much further can the Middle East spin away from peace? In the past four days, Israeli forces have killed more than 40 Palestinians in one of the biggest and most brutal operations in Gaza for years. Tanks and helicopter gunships have been deployed in an unusual, and deadly, show of force.

How much further can the Middle East spin away from peace? In the past four days, Israeli forces have killed more than 40 Palestinians in one of the biggest and most brutal operations in Gaza for years. Tanks and helicopter gunships have been deployed in an unusual, and deadly, show of force.

There should be no mystery about why Israel is acting as ruthlessly as it is in Gaza. The prime minister, Ariel Sharon, wants to pursue his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from select areas of the occupied territories as the first stage of enforcing peace on his terms. He has been unable to convince a majority of his Likud Party to support him, not because they opposed his unilateral approach, but because they feared he was giving too much away.

The assaults in Gaza are intended to destroy anyone and anything that could possibly be construed as a threat to Israel's security. Israeli officials have defended the raids in Rafah as targeting arms smugglers and the network of tunnels they allegedly use to bring weapons to Palestinian militants from Egypt. The objective is a neutralised Gaza that will pose no threat to Israel when its troops withdraw. The corollary is that there will be no question of any withdrawal unless that objective is achieved. If it is, we can be sure that the same tactics will be applied to those parts of the West Bank from which Mr Sharon says Israel will withdraw.

The lack of mystery about Israel's intentions, however, does not make what it is doing any more acceptable. Perhaps the only positive feature of recent days has been the extent and volume of the international outcry. Minds have not yet been so dulled by revelations about American mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq that they ignore brutality and injustice elsewhere. Nor have Israel's attempts to justify its conduct by citing the international war on terrorism carried conviction. Just how universally unacceptable Israel's conduct has been in Gaza became apparent on Wednesday when the United States chose for once to abstain rather than use its customary veto against a vote of censure in the Security Council.

As the White House said in a statement, Israel's actions in Gaza do not serve the purpose of peace and security, either in Israel or in the wider region. The massive use of force against protesters in Gaza is alienating a whole new generation. Blocking tunnels may interrupt arms smuggling, but it will do nothing to stem the resentment of those who live in the occupied territories, nor will it make a Palestinian Gaza into a stable and peaceable neighbour. Pacification by force does not work, as the occupation forces are learning every day in Iraq.

There are currently two plans for Middle East peace that have broad international support. There is the road-map, endorsed by the Quartet of the US, the UN, Russia and the EU, then there is the less official, but widely hailed, Geneva Accord, which was signed last year by leading Israeli and Palestinian representatives of civil society.

Yet Mr Sharon has given up on the first - blaming Palestinian intransigence and the lack of any Palestinian leader to negotiate with - and ignored the second, preferring to champion his own plan instead. The Sharon plan, which recently received President Bush's barely qualified stamp of approval, goes back on undertakings given to the Palestinians in successive UN resolutions and would effectively nullify all international peace efforts. It would produce an Israeli state whose security was guaranteed by self-imposed isolation. It would be a state behind walls and fences, which would exist alongside a Palestinian state in geography only. There would be no normal relations between two sovereign countries, and no realistic prospect of any developing. The promised state of Palestine would have been emasculated before it had even been born.

The only settlement that has any chance of enduring is one that requires Israel to play by international rules and carries international endorsement. The wilful defiance shown by Mr Sharon in Gaza makes such a settlement a more remote prospect than ever.

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