Rumours last night of a ceasefire in the making between Israel and Hamas were a rare if fragile piece of good news in what has become a tragic and horrifying three-week conflict.
Israel has seemed in recent days almost impervious to international opinion. Its disproportionate response to Hamas rocket attacks, so far resulting in the death of some 1,100 Gazans and the injury of 6,500 others, is only entrenching anger in Gaza and no doubt support for Hamas too. A shocked international community has seen pictures emerging from the overpopulated Palestinian enclave of swathes of destruction and broken bodies, including many dead children. Palestinians in Gaza feel safe nowhere, hemmed into a space roughly the size of Midlothian (relative populations: Gaza 1.8 million; Midlothian 83,000).
Israel should be allowed to defend itself against Hamas, a militant Islamist group that wants to destroy Israel and in years gone by has orchestrated suicide bombings against it. Prime Minister David Cameron is right when he says that Hamas is responsible for starting the current round of conflict by firing rockets into Israel. Some 53 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have also been killed in this 22-day conflict so far. Having, as they do, a next door neighbour that refuses to renounce violence against them explains why 90 per cent of Israelis support onging Israeli action in Gaza.
What is at issue is not Israel's right to respond but the scale of its response and its apparent willingness to simply accept the mounting civilian death toll. Israel massively outclasses Hamas militarily and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's promise of a "protracted" campaign raises the terrible prospect of many more innocent people dying. As well as being a humanitarian outrage, these actions, albeit designed to undermine Hamas's military capability and destroy its tunnels, can in the long term only make Israelis less safe by creating fury among Palestinians.
"Madness consists of doing the same things time and time again and hoping the result will be different," said Sir John Holmes yesterday. The former senior British diplomat who was UN emergency relief co-ordinator during the last Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009 believes that, in the long term, Israel must think the unthinkable and consider talking to Hamas, pointing to the precedent for such action with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Such talks naturally would take place through a mediator.
Such controversial new approaches must be considered in the light of the intractable hostility between the two sides. But to make that possible, Hamas, too, must think the unthinkable and declare an end to violence against Israel.
For now, if there is a ceasefire, it must be hoped that, finally, after so much bloodshed, both sides will use the opportunity to take stock. The moment the last ceasefire ended, Hamas resumed firing missiles into Israel. If Hamas truly cares about the suffering of Gaza's people and is more than a band of dangerous fanatics, it must now show this to the world by taking the next chance to scale down the conflict.
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