• Ending the madness in Gaza

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    The United Nations Security Council has called for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” in Gaza, where more than 500 Palestinians have died as Israel pressed its offensive against Hamas.

    There is a desperate ring to the appeal of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for Israel to “exercise maximum restraint.” “Too many innocent people are dying,” the UN chief lamented.

    Sadly, we do not see a ceasefire developing soon. The Israel government seems bent on punishing Hamas for unleashing more than 1,000 rockets and mortar rounds on Israeli communities in the past days. The Islamic militant group, on the other hand, has rejected a proposal for a limited humanitarian truce to allow medical and relief aid to be brought into Gaza.

    That means the fighting and the killings will continue, and the frightening prospect is that no one exactly knows when it will stop.

    Gaza is no stranger to war. It has in fact experienced few episodes of relative calm since 1994, when Israel granted the Palestine Authority the right to govern the thin strip of land that is home to about a million refugees from past conflicts. This arrangement was tenuous at best, and many times Israeli troops had breached the border to retaliate for Palestinian attacks. During these incursions, it was always the populace that took a beating.

    What is happening now in Gaza is no different. Israeli-Palestinian tension, which has simmered just below the surface, escalated after three Israeli boys were killed in the West Bank in June and the burned body a 16-year-old Palestinian was discovered in a forest outside Jerusalem a few days later.

    It did not take long before Hamas-launched rockets rained on Jewish towns and Israeli forces subjected Gaza to air, land and sea bombardment. A full-blown battle was under way.

    What is appalling is that most of the casualties were non-combatants, Gaza residents cut down by Israeli shells and bombs. Hamas was quick to condemn Israel for the horrific number of civilian deaths. Israel condemned Hamas right back for using humans to shield its military positions.

    The international community is left scrambling for a quick end to the hostilities. It is a task that has become even more difficult as both Israel and Hamas have vowed to fight on. There are militant voices in the Cabinet of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling for a re-occupation of Gaza, a move that could have tragic consequences. Hamas, on the other hand, has taken a more hardline stance, presenting inflexible demands, including a prisoner release, before it agrees to negotiate.

    One way out of the quagmire, as some analysts suggest, is for world leaders to prop up the Palestine Authority, make it robust enough to stand up to pressure from Hamas. The group has practically usurped power from the government of President Mahmoud Abbas by building itself up as the defender of the people of Gaza. With Mr. Abbas reasserting control, Hamas could lose stature and clout.

    At the same time, the United States must use all its persuasive powers to convince Mr. Netanyahu to pull back from Gaza and stand down to allow the peace process to restart.

    The final piece is to let the UN and other relief agencies into Gaza to stem the humanitarian crisis there.

    This week, Mr. Abbas will meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Qatar in an effort to work things out. While no dramatic breakthroughs are expected from that meeting, there is a small ray of hope that the two could at least find areas of agreement that could help end the madness that has engulfed their land.

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