Leading article: Only a new President can end Gaza's nightmare

Monday 03 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Almost ten years ago, Serbia's bloody reprisals against the Albanian rebels in the then province of Kosovo roused the world to indignation. There was angry talk of hammers being taken to nuts, and as the conflict escalated and villages burned, for all their deep misgivings, the big powers resolved to do something.

What a contrast there is between the frantic activity undertaken then to halt the killings of civilians in Kosovo and the almost nonchalant attitude of the West towards the carnage unfolding in Gaza.

No one can claim not to know what is going on there, even if the bald statistics of this uneven struggle invite a certain disbelief: between 54 and 61 killed on the Palestinian side in a single day. On the other side, two dead, both soldiers. Can this be termed a fight? Given that half the dead Palestinians were incontrovertibly civilians and included several children, and that of the other half only their age and sex even allows us to conveniently write them off as "militants", it might be thought Saturday's events in Gaza deserved to be termed a massacre. Yet there is no sense of real urgency in Western capitals about Gaza, nor contrition on the part of Israel over what its forces are doing. On the contrary, the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, yesterday declared that military operations will not only continue but grow in scale in pursuit of the goal of "bringing down" the Hamas-led government in the strip. Fresh bombing raids, targeting the offices of Hamas leaders, showed those were not idle words. This is the counsel of madness and despair, a kind of desperate macho politics that must end in more killings on the same monstrous scale as Saturday's.

Shamefully, the world seems unable to rouse itself to condemn this bankrupt policy for what it is, let alone take concrete steps to stop the violence.

Instead, we have the depressing sight of the UN Security Council wrangling in its usual fashion over whether a resolution on Gaza should describe Israel's response as "excessive", with the Americans, as ever, shielding their Israeli ally from serious criticism.

Rewind the tape by a few months, of course, and we had President George W Bush in Annapolis confidently predicting the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008, a time limit designed to match the end of his term in office. Where is Mr Bush now, as the carnage among Palestinians rises? Nowhere, and saying nothing. His only response is to dispatch his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to the Middle East on a desultory, meaningless tour. She will convey no new ideas or strategies from the White House on ways to end this bloodshed because Mr Bush has provided her with none.

Far from helping to bring about the end of the Middle East's most intractable dispute, Mr Bush deserves to go down in history as a US president who has worsened it immeasurably by wholly abandoning even the pretence that the US should act as an impartial referee in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Instead, by taking the brakes off Israel entirely, he emboldened a weak government containing a few hard men – an unfortunate combination – to go for broke and try to crack Hamas once and for all. We can only hope a change in the White House will bring about an end to the policy of offering Israel unreserved support, restore a degree of fairness to America's Middle Eastern diplomacy and prompt a more proactive attitude on the part of the US in general.

Nothing else will encourage Palestinians to have any store in peace negotiations, or offer any prospect that Gaza's dreadful nightmare can be ended.

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