Leading article: Gaza: the way forward?

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If anything worthwhile can come from the brutal and bloody conflict in Gaza, it will be a restitution of a united Palestinian leadership capable of negotiating seriously with Israel.

One would have to be very optimistic indeed to believe this will be the immediate consequence of this war. For the moment, all the talk is of security and distrust as the Israelis insist on strict border controls to prevent Hamas rearming, while Hamas itself is moving to re-establish its control of security on the streets to show it has "triumphed" through survival. Any talk of peacemaking in this atmosphere smacks of wishful thinking. The opposite is more likely to be true.

And yet the very fact that both sides seem to be dredging some argument of victory out of the carnage points to a possible way forward. Whatever else it has done – and one should never forget that civilians have been the primary victims of the pride of the two battling forces – this conflict has put Gaza firmly centre-stage and with it the position of Hamas as a major force in Palestinian politics. It will surely now be impossible for the world to pursue the policy of blockading the Gaza Strip, which sewed the seeds of this conflict in the first place.

At the same time, a new US President brings with him the possibility of a fresh start in negotiations. The appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as America's envoy to the Middle East is a welcome sign that Barack Obama is determined to get to grips with the issue from the beginning of his presidency. That in turn may effect the tenor of the debate in Israel's elections next month, while the Palestinians are due to hold elections later this year, although their President, Mahmoud Abbas, has indicated that he will not stand again.

For the moment, the Palestinian community remains politically divided and the misery for the inhabitants of Gaza continues as they seek to rebuild their homes.

The first task must be humanitarian relief, but the next job is to ensure security for Israel and encourage the reunification of the Palestinians, then maybe the sides can come back to the negotiating table.

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