Peace remains a dream

The BBC's Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen explains that without a miracle, political reconciliation

Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, former prime minister and current defence minister says he will not allow Palestinians in Gaza to have lives that are "pleasant or comfortable" while Israeli towns are being hit by rockets.

Life in Gaza has not been pleasant, or comfortable, for a long time. It is an unfolding horror show, brutalised by years of occupation and, more recently, by vicious competition between the two factions, Hamas and Fatah.

Sanctions are squeezing Gaza's people to the edge of their endurance: 80 per cent of Gaza's population is fed by United Nations agencies; 90 per cent of all businesses in Gaza have collapsed.

The suffering in Sderot, the Israeli town closest to Gaza, is less extreme, but it is still real. Rocket attacks make life miserable and dangerous. One Israeli survey says that 74 per cent of children aged between seven and 12 in Sderot suffer from anxiety. The task now for Palestinians and Israelis should be about making things better, instead of even worse.

As the weeks go by, the serious structural weaknesses in the peace process inaugurated by the Americans in Annapolis at the end of last year are becoming more obvious. One of the biggest is that it does not directly address the grave crisis in Gaza, except by keeping up the pressure on Hamas. President Bush explained in Ramallah recently that Gaza's problems would be solved if a much better life could be created for Palestinians on the West Bank.

The idea is that Gazans will want what West Bankers have, and that Hamas will have to get with the programme or collapse under the weight of its contradictions, as did the German Democratic Republic.

If you start from the position, as Israel and the Palestinians of Fatah do, that Hamas is an illegitimate organisation that needs to go, it might not be a bad strategy - if it were workable. But there may not be enough time to see if it is.

Developing the West Bank is a long term process, dependent first and foremost on Israel relaxing the complex system of barriers, checkpoints and permits that put severe restrictions on the movement of Palestinians. So far, that isn't happening.

At the conference in Paris just before Christmas that pledged more than $7bn to the Palestinians, Tony Blair showed that he has been a fast learner since becoming Middle East envoy for the Quartet of the US, UN, Russia and the European Union. He said that Palestinians would find it hard to believe in the process unless the gap could be narrowed between the optimistic language used by international delegates and the reality of daily life in the territories.

So far, the gap is as wide as ever, and negotiations that President Bush says should settle, by the end of the year, the most politically toxic issues in the Middle East - the futures of Jerusalem, of Palestinian refugees and the route of a border between Israel and a Palestinian state - have barely started.

In the background looms the prospect of a big Israeli offensive in Gaza. If a Palestinian rocket were to kill a substantial number of Israeli civilians it would most likely happen. The last big push, in 2006, killed hundreds of Palestinians but did not stop the rocket fire. Recent, lower-level military operations and the closure of Gaza's borders have not stopped the rocket fire either, though they have been a partial answer to political pressure on the Israeli government to take the pressure off Sderot.

But the embargo is creating a feeling of solidarity in Gaza rather than a desire to overthrow Hamas. This week, Lynn Pascoe, the UN secretary general's representative, told the Security Council in New York that the embargo has also stopped international building projects that should be creating jobs and building homes, including ones that would be lived in by people whose houses were destroyed by Israel Defence Forces operations. Pascoe also complained that the embargo even prevented UNRWA, the UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees, from bringing in bulletproof windows to protect its Gaza offices.

So here is the conundrum. Israel has a policy, in the words of the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, "of pressuring the civilian population of Gaza for the unacceptable actions of militants. Collective penalties are prohibited under international law." Hamas has shown no inclination to stop firing rockets. It has proposed a truce, but Israelis ask why they should trust an organisation whose charter calls for their state's destruction. In the long term, the only way forward is political reconciliation between Israel and a reunited bloc of Palestinians. Barring a miracle, that does not look likely.

So, the secretary general among others has suggested, why not take the pressure off Palestinian civilians by opening the borders? President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have offered to arrange supervision of the crossings. It might even make Palestinians less sceptical about how the outside world can help.

The prospect of any agreement seems remote if you stand in a furious, seething crowd of the kind that gathers around a burning car, or a wrecked building, after Israeli missiles kill Palestinians in Gaza. And peace must feel as fanciful a notion in a bomb shelter in Sderot. But, longer term, life will become steadily more unpleasant and uncomfortable for both Palestinians and Israelis unless their leaders, and their allies abroad, find a way to nudge them closer to some kind of deal.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC Middle East editor

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer