When will we have peace?

Israeli soldiers move into position during clashes with Palestinian protesters near Qalandiya...
Israeli soldiers move into position during clashes with Palestinian protesters near Qalandiya checkpoint on the edge of the West Bank city of Ramallah March 16, 2007. Such clashes continue to this day. Photo by Reuters.
The eyes of the world are fixed on the volatile situation in the Middle East, as fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip intensifies and Egypt attempts to broker a truce. The Jewish state of Israel last week killed Ahmed al-Jabari, a commander of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamist party that governs the coastal Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip.

The strike was part of a campaign, named Operation Pillar of Defence, Israel said was aimed at ending years of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of Israeli air strikes have targeted weaponry, Hamas government buildings, police headquarters, media offices and militants' homes and headquarters, and a ground invasion is looking increasingly possible.

Hamas said the assassination "had opened the gates of hell" and Gaza has fired hundreds of rockets in retaliation, including strikes against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Inevitably, civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Dozens have been killed in Gaza and hundreds wounded, and in Israel there have been several deaths and dozens wounded. Israel's vastly superior military might includes its Iron Dome missile interceptor system, and it has mobilised 75,000 reserve troops.

World leaders and the United Nations have called for an end to the escalating violence. The best hope for a truce comes from current negotiations between Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi and Prime Minister Hisham Kandil and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Egypt successfully negotiated a previous truce, but there is a balancing act this time. At play is pressure on the newly elected Islamist president (whose government is allied with Hamas) to be tough, Egypt's billion-dollar-plus annual aid package from the United States, and the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, fundamental to Middle East stability.

At the same time, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other world leaders have talked to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in attempts to calm the situation.

The violence comes just as there were hopeful signs of progress in the bloody civil war in Syria, with the formation of a National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, a government-in-exile aimed at ending President Bashar al-Assad's regime and implementing steps towards democracy as achieved in other states following the "Arab Spring" uprising. The coalition of rebel groups has the backing of Gulf states, the US and France. While there is no certainty the coalition can achieve its aims, a general Middle Eastern conflict would likely consign them to history.

But, of course, the issues between Israel and the Palestinian territories go deep, are long-standing and are all too easily inflamed.

It is clear there needs to be ongoing commitment to a lasting peace from both sides. Israel has alternately said it wants calm, but then talked tough. Vice-prime minister Moshe Yaalon said at the end of last week: "If Hamas says it understands the message and commits to a long ceasefire, via the Egyptians or anyone else, this is what we want. We want quiet in the south and a strong deterrence."

But only a couple of days later Mr Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting: "We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the terrorist organisations and the Israel defence forces are prepared for a significant expansion of the operation."

Actions certainly speak louder than words and the attacks from both sides have intensified, with Hamas military spokesman Abu Ubaida saying: "This round of confrontation will not be the last against the Zionist enemy and it is only the beginning."

The words are chilling, and it is to be hoped they are not prophetic. The leaders working to achieve peace have the weight of history on their shoulders and the eyes of the world upon them. For the sake of civilians on the ground in Gaza and Israel in particular - and the stability of the Middle East in general - it is essential they find a way to resolve the escalating conflict.

Until then, the world's citizens can only look on helplessly and with increasing trepidation.


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