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Gaza Is on a Knife Edge

Posted: 20/11/2012 08:38

Gaza is on a knife edge. At the time of writing hopes are being raised of an imminent ceasefire. That should certainly be the top priority of the players in the region and outside as the death toll rises to over 90 on the Palestinian side and three on the Israeli. But for any ceasefire to be sustainable and deliver the 'quiet' that Israelis who live within range of the Hamas rockets desire it will have to include the prospect of the end of Gaza's blockade and a return to meaningful talks on a two state solution.

The temptation is to see the tragic bloodshed in the narrow terms of the Hamas rockets and Israel's right to self defence. Israel has that right of course and it's worth restating. But this is not just about rockets and self-defence. It's about 1.3 million Palestinians crowded into a tiny strip of land (or "prison camp" as David Cameron called it), most of whose families were refugees from land now occupied by Israel and who feel that their hopes of a viable Palestinian homeland are further away than ever. Yes, the Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but Israel's continued blockade has strangled Gaza's economy and only served to encourage the militants.

I hope Israel has learned the lesson of 2008 when, in the last major flare up, it mounted the ground invasion 'Cast Lead' in which more than a thousand Palestinians and 14 Israelis were killed and Israel lost much of the international sympathy it had started with in the process. President Obama has said publicly he would not welcome a ground invasion. That's an improvement on George W Bush, who, in effect, gave a green light to 'Cast Lead' by remaining silent. US and other diplomats will be working furiously behind the scenes to try to avoid a ground campaign and get a ceasefire. But the lesson of the last 40 years of what I hesitate to call the 'Middle East peace process' is that without firm and sustained pressure from America on Israel we'll get nowhere. Both Bill Clinton and, to his credit, George Bush senior expended serious energy on Israel/Palestine in their second terms and at Camp David in 2000 Clinton got close to an historic agreement. President Obama tried rather tentatively in his first term, including calling for an immediate freeze in illegal Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. But faced with the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's intransigence Obama blinked. He cannot afford to blink now.

Time is running out. The relentless expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly around Jerusalem, make it increasingly hard to see how a two state solution could be possible. Faced with this reality, more people on both sides are talking about a one state solution. If Obama doesn't want to go down in history as the American President who missed the last chance for a two state solution he must not only act now to stop the bloodshed but devote serious American engagement to getting peace talks going again. He may fail, as others have before him (although the Arab Spring has changed the Middle East dynamic and should help focus Israeli minds), but at least he will have tried.

 
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