Forty-eight hours of escalating violence, reflected in harrowing footage of a 10-year-old Palestinian screaming for her dead family in the shrapnel-strewn wreckage of a Gaza beach, had by Sunday eclipsed the already slender hopes of political progress on the Middle East conflict.
Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, begins a European tour today in which he will likely be obliged to justify his country’s military tactics in the territories before he is allowed to turn the focus towards promoting his controversial and potentially unilateral plans for the West Bank.
The UK and France, his hosts this week, both condemned Friday’s incident in which seven Palestinians were killed during a beach picnic, apparently victims of stray Israeli shelling. The deaths were the signal for the military wing of Hamas, the ruling party in the Palestinian Authority, to suspend a period of self-imposed calm that lasted more than a year and resume rocket attacks on Israel.
The deteriorating situation posed a further threat to efforts by the international quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – to get its moribund “road map” peace plan back on track via renewed negotiations between the antagonists.
Washington has already insisted that Mr Olmert must exhaust all efforts to negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s Fatah president, before undertaking unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank that would consolidate Israel’s hold over much of the territory.
The desire for a breakthrough has prompted foreign governments, including the US, to embrace Mr Abbas’s decision to hold a national referendum among Palestinians on a set of proposals that implicitly recognise Israel. He issued a decree on Saturday for the vote to be held on July 26.
However, the international enthusiasm for the initiative is not matched on the ground. Hamas has rejected the move, with some of its spokesmen warning that the movement would prevent the vote, while many ordinary Palestinians appeared indifferent.
Mr Olmert meanwhile has dismissed the referendum as meaningless on the grounds that the document on which it is based – a manifesto drawn up by Palestinian political prisoners – fails to meet the principles of the quartet’s own “road map”.
Some Palestinian political analysts do not believe the referendum, which Hamas regards as part of a foreign-inspired plot to destabilise its already beleaguered government, will actually take place. Hamas and Mr Abbas still have more than a month in which to reach a compromise, barring a further escalation in the internal conflict between gunmen of the ruling party and his Fatah movement.
The analysts say a low turnout in the referendum, let alone a vote against the prisoners’ document, would weaken rather than strengthen the president of the Palestinian Authority. Opinion polls show a large majority supports the plan, although analysts said that, amid heightened anger over Israel’s military attacks, a Yes vote was not a foregone conclusion.
Although Hamas has returned to a campaign of tit-for-tat exchanges with the Israeli military across the Gaza border, it is not clear whether the Islamists have definitively abandoned the ceasefire.
While the period of calm that it and other militant groups declared in early 2005 officially expired at the end of last year, Hamas maintained the ceasefire until Saturday. Other groups, principally Islamic Jihad, continued to fire sporadic volleys of home-made rockets into Israel during the ceasefire period.
Hamas’s political leaders voiced support for renewed attacks by the group’s military wing. Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas spokesman, said: “I believe that, amid the continued bloodshed of our people and the horrific images of massacres, there is no place for silence.”
Political analysts said, however, that senior local leaders such as Ismail Haniya, prime minister, might prefer to limit the response to the immediate aftermath of the Gaza beach killings rather than exacerbate internal tensions. In a poignant reflection of those political divisions, Mr Abbas and Mr Haniya separately announced they would adopt Houda Ghalia, the orphaned 10-year-old.
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