Leading article: A voice in the wilderness

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Yet again, a toxic combination of violence and strategic myopia is pulling Israelis and Palestinians towards the darkness. There were intense battles in Gaza yesterday. Three Israeli soldiers and four Hamas gunmen were killed in firefights, after Palestinian fighters approached the Nahal Oz crossing. This was followed by an Israeli airstrike on the Bureij refugee camp, which killed eleven Gazans, including two children.

Israel has resumed fuel deliveries to Gaza's power station, but the blockade on transport fuel continues; so does the ban on exports. Virtually all economic activity in Gaza has dried up. All that is keeping many Gazans from starvation are humanitarian aid deliveries.

Meanwhile, attempts by the Egyptian government to mediate a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel have stalled. And, ominously, the Israeli government seems to have hardened its line. A few months ago Israeli ministers were holding out the prospect of an agreed ceasefire if the rockets attacks on southern Israel ended. But now they are talking up a military solution, through air strikes and incursions. The goal increasingly seems to be to crush Hamas at any cost.

An indication of this intransigence can be discerned in the cold reception offered to the former US President Jimmy Carter on his present visit to Israel. Mr Carter advocates dialogue between Hamas and Israel. In return, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declined to meet him.

The Israeli government needs to rethink its strategy urgently. It should be clear by now that the economic blockade is hurting the Gazan population far more than Hamas itself. It is also extremely doubtful that it is going to achieve its political end. The latest opinion polls in Gaza show support for Hamas is holding up, if not increasing. And even if the blockade did succeed in dislodging Hamas, it is hard to see how this will lead to the disarming of the militants that are causing Israeli such pain. There is every reason to believe that, even if Hamas fell, the rocket attacks would continue.

As for crushing Hamas militarily, the death of three Israeli soldiers yesterday is a reminder that, if the government is intent on taking down Hamas by force, it will be anything but cost-free. Will the Israeli public be willing to see a repeat of the messy and inconclusive 2006 conflict with Lebanon?

The Israeli political establishment does not want to hear it, but Mr Carter is right: Israel needs to talk to Hamas and negotiate a ceasefire. Isolating a large segment of the Palestinian people and their political representatives is only serving to push the prospects of peace, both for the Palestinians and Israelis, further out of reach.

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