Ceasefire must bring solution
Hassidic Jewish men from the Breslov sect dance near Kibbutz Yad Mordechai outside the northern Gaza Strip. Photo: Reuters
While a ceasefire has been brokered between Hamas and Israel, the latter's massive bombardment of the Gaza Strip from the air and sea shows it has learnt little from its past experiences.
The more innocent people killed and non-military properties destroyed, the more the conditions are generated for a backlash that will defeat the very objectives for which the bombardment had been launched.
Israel claims the main aim of its Gaza campaign was to stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets at Israel and to degrade the Islamist rule of Hamas.
However, Israel cannot claim to be an innocent party. Its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories (West Bank and East Jerusalem) and almost universally condemned siege of Gaza since 2007 constitute the root causes of the conflict.
Israel tried to break Hamas in its military onslaught of December 2008-January 2009. Its operations resulted in the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinians and destruction of most of Gaza's infrastructure, making the Strip more squalid than ever. Neighbouring Arab countries, especially Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza, did little more than verbally condemn Israel.
The former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was vehemently opposed to political Islamists at home and abroad and valued the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and US support for his rule. He let Israel carry on its campaign unhindered. However, Israel still could neither dislodge Hamas, nor diminish opportunities for it to rebuild itself and consolidate its hold on Gaza.
Israel and its international supporters must recognise that since then, the regional situation has substantially changed. The Arab popular uprisings have altered the configuration of forces on the ground. The rise of political Islamists to power in Egypt and Tunisia and their growing strength across the Arab world, together with the Iranian Islamic regime's ability to hold out against mounting Western pressure over its nuclear program, has been very encouraging to Hamas.
The principle of self-defence was not the only consideration that motivated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to justify again the use of disproportionate force. He is also due to go to the polls for re-election soon and is keen to boost his government's credentials as the one best placed to ensure Israel's security. In addition, he has wanted to divert attention from the move by the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank to gain the UN General Assembly's recognition of Palestine as a non-member ''observer state'' - a step towards Palestinian statehood - at the end of this month.
Netanyahu has never supported a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the principle of ''land for peace''. While continuing Israel's settlement activities in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, he has only advocated a resolution based on ''peace for peace''. He has done whatever possible to play off against one another the secularist Palestine Liberation Organisation in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, and yet at the same time has blamed the Palestinians for the lack of a negotiated settlement. Further, by demonstrating Israel's military might, he has wanted to send a clear signal to Iran, which he has vowed to confront over the country's nuclear program, and to all political Islamist forces that have mushroomed around Israel.
Egypt has grown to be a source of concern for Israel. The country's new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government under President Mohammed Morsi has organic and ideological links with Hamas, which was born out of a Muslim Brotherhood cell in 1987.
However, while condemning ''Israel's aggression'' - a position the moderate Islamist Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shared with him - Morsi has now played a critical role in brokering the ceasefire. Had Israel's military campaign persisted, Morsi would have come under increasing pressure from his constituency and the radical Salafist Islamists to provide material support to Hamas.
Whatever the future of the current ceasefire, Israel's operations have already benefited Hamas. The latter has never received as much diplomatic attention as it has in the past week. Not only have the Egyptian Prime Minister and Tunisian and Qatari foreign ministers visited Gaza but also an Arab League delegation is on its way. Most Gazans and political forces of Islam across the region have found themselves with little choice but to rally behind Hamas.
By publicly backing Israel's actions as defensive, without taking the plight of the Palestinians on board, the US and its allies have left themselves vulnerable again to the usual condemnation in the Arab and Muslim worlds of being hypocritical when it comes to the right of Palestinians to have their freedom and independence. The West needs to be cognisant of changes in the region, where serious movements are afoot for genuine self-determination and where the situation is more volatile than ever.
President Barack Obama - who dislikes Netanyahu for his hawkish and uncompromising policy behaviour - and America's Western allies now have a unique opportunity to prompt Israel to negotiate a settlement based on a two-state solution. As part of this, the US and its allies would need to open dialogue with Hamas as an integral part of the Palestinian nationalist movement, for if Hamas is not part of a solution it will always be in a position to wreck it.
Israel and its international supporters have done this before with the PLO. They branded the PLO a terrorist outfit for years but by 1993 deemed it expedient to adopt it as a ''partner in peace''.
Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the centre for Arab and Islamic studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.