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November 16, 2012 8:44 pm
Over the past two years the world has largely ignored the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, with the focus shifting to the Arab uprisings across the rest of the Middle East. This week, however, violence has erupted again as Israel confronted Hamas in Gaza. On Wednesday Israel killed Hamas’s military chief and attacked numerous sites, some of them containing arms. Hamas responded with a ferocious rocket assault that has struck Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the first time. The two adversaries may now be on the verge of another bloody war.
William Hague, UK foreign secretary, says Hamas bears “principal responsibility” for what has happened. There is some truth in this. In 2012 about 700 rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel. Hamas recently detonated a tunnel packed with explosives along the Israel-Gaza border in the vicinity of Israeli soldiers. No sovereign state could tolerate such a brazen assault on its territory.
However, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu must also take much blame for stoking resentment among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank for so long. The economic blockade of Gaza has deepened anger in the enclave (while providing Israel with little by way of extra security). Israel has pressed ahead with its settlement programme in the West Bank, bypassing the Palestinian Authority. It is hard to sympathise with Mr Netanyahu’s actions when he has so thoroughly spurned Mahmoud Abbas, the PA leader, and so effectively strengthened Hamas among Palestinians.
What is needed now? First, there must be a de-escalation of the violence. Hamas must call an immediate ceasefire, reining in Gaza’s more militant groups. Mr Netanyanhu must realise that a ground offensive into Gaza would be a disaster. The last offensive in 2008-09 killed 1,400 Palestinians, many of them civilians. Israel faced international opprobrium. More important, the military offensive did nothing to resolve the Israelis’ security problem. Hamas is arguably stronger now, with rockets of even longer range in its arsenal.
This is a moment for regional powers to exercise responsibility. For years Hamas has been in an axis with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Yet now it relies on strong alliances with Egypt, Turkey and Qatar. Hamas will want these powers to back it in its new armed struggle. But these three states should push Hamas down the road of restraint and reconciliation.
A deal to end the violence would involve Hamas stopping its rockets and containing Gaza’s extremist groups. In return, Israel would commit to halt its military offensive and begin lifting the economic blockade of Gaza. Newly re-elected US President Barack Obama should rally behind such an agreement.
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