Trouble in Gaza


THE DRACONIAN Israeli boycott of Gaza over the last six months was imposed despite the now suspended ceasefire between them and the dominant Hamas fundamentalist movement. Intended to break Hamas by turning Palestinian opinion against it, the boycott imposes severe humanitarian suffering on the 1.5 million population squeezed into the tiny territory.

Gaza has had only 12 hours of electricity and water per day, directly affecting hospitals, schools, workplaces and households. Economic activity has sharply contracted and there is widespread malnutrition among the population, despite relief brought from tunnels to Egypt.

The Israeli policy, amounting effectively to collective punishment, has not worked. Instead of alienating Gazans from Hamas, the boycott has reinforced the organisation's appeal. That makes the end of the ceasefire between Hamas and Israeli forces highly troublesome for Israel as it heads into elections early next year. Israeli towns and cities within a widening radius of Gaza have been hit - so far mostly harmlessly but potentially lethally - by rockets and mortar fire in recent days in a renewal of attacks suspended six months ago. Despite a 24-hour truce yesterday and talk on both sides of a possible agreement to renew the ceasefire, they are expected to continue at least until talks can be held on lifting the economic boycott.

That prospect poses a strategic dilemma for Israel's leaders. Rising demands for retaliatory military action against Gaza, whether limited to cross-border raids and intensified air attacks or an all-out assault intended to root out and topple the Hamas regime, are difficult to resist in election mode. But any such radical action would return Israel to full control of Gaza after the 2005 withdrawal, cause many casualties on both sides and invite huge international opprobrium comparable to the 2006 war against Hizbullah in Lebanon. Military means could easily backfire in that case. In spite of this, it looks increasingly likely, since the alternative, a political dialogue with Hamas, remains unacceptable to Israeli public opinion.

This renewed tension over Gaza underlines the central importance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the world awaits Barack Obama's assumption of power in Washington next month. Should he choose to concentrate on resolving it, he would have strong international and regional goodwill. Making progress would depend on an overall approach to include US talks with Hamas and with Iran, which has a definite influence in Gaza.