No easy way out for Israel-Gaza conflict

In order for any ceasefire to be meaningful, Israel must free Gaza from its straitjacket. That prospect is some way off

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With the bloodshed in Gaza having worsened over the weekend, John Kerry’s visit to the Middle East takes on added significance. Agreement on the terms of a ceasefire is vital.

Conflict does not necessarily beget sense. On the contrary, more often than not war hardens positions and there will be plenty in both Israel and Gaza who feel there is nothing to be lost by fighting on. But in the Israeli-Palestinian context where – in the end – peoples must live side by side, that makes it all the more important to end the competing bombardments.

Mr Kerry has been in a similar position before. Indeed, until the recent escalation of hostilities he had been groping towards a peace settlement for a little under a year without success. But with the Palestinian death toll rising above 500, most of them civilians, it is clear that the rhetoric from the US and the United Nations has become more focused on the need for a cessation to the fighting. Pictures of child-size body bags make a tougher line inevitable.

Yet the American Secretary of State cannot achieve a ceasefire alone and support in the wider Middle East for any peace plan is crucial to its accomplishment. His meeting last month with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s President, may prove helpful in that regard, enabling the presentation of a united front to Benjamin Netanyahu and to the Palestinian leadership, even if Egyptian influence over Hamas is minimal.

Of course, nobody doubts that indiscriminate Hamas attacks on Israel are unacceptable. For all the efficacy of the Iron Dome defence system, no state should simply put up with rockets being fired into its territory. Nonetheless, the military gulf between the two sides is vast and the Israeli response over the past fortnight has been disproportionate. Israel must not be left under the illusion that it has widespread international support for its current actions, however legitimate its concerns about Hamas rockets.

As to whether Israel has weakened the Palestinian militants, that is frankly a moot point. The killing of women and children will only reinforce the view among Palestinian civilians that Israel does not care one jot about collateral damage to the innocent.

Mr Netanyahu’s steadfast refusal to recognise the current Palestinian government because of its backing by Hamas certainly makes peace more difficult to achieve. The simple fact is that Israel could continue air raids on Gaza indefinitely if its government wanted to, so any truce that seeks to humiliate Mr Netanyahu personally or the Israeli state is bound to be a non-starter.

But equally, the 10-point plan for peace set out by Hamas last week contains a lot that ought to be regarded as acceptable by both sides – and as reasonable by the international community. For instance, a measured lifting of the blockade of Gaza is frankly essential if any semblance of normality is to return to the lives of people living there. It is not reasonable that Gaza should be some kind of open-air penitentiary in perpetuity. To that end, the opening of a port and airport under UN management, and the expansion of the fishing zone, should be agreed upon. The requested release of all recaptured prisoners from the Gilad Shalit swap may rankle Israel, but there appears to be little justification for their continued detention.

The tragedy is that, as always, discussions about peace in the Middle East are set in the context of ceasefires, truces and – at the outside – five or 10-year settlements. The notion of a longer-lasting peace between Israel and a viable Palestinian state remains a seemingly forlorn hope. Today, it is further off than ever.

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