A basic inconsistency at the heart of the current US-led peace effort in the Middle East has been starkly revealed by the events of the past few days.
Last week two Israeli soldiers were killed while pursuing a group of Hamas fighters trying to lay mines near the border fence between Gaza and Israel. During the shoot-out two other Israeli soldiers were wounded, and two Hamas men killed. This incident came against a background of increasing rocket attacks into Israel from within Gaza. Following a period of comparative calm after the end of Israel's Operation Cast Lead, March saw something like 20 rocket and mortar attacks. A rocket fired from Gaza two weeks ago killed a Thai agricultural worker in a nearby Israeli town. On Thursday another rocket was fired into Israel.
That seemed to be the last straw. On Friday Israel struck back. According to an Israeli military spokesman, aircraft blasted two weapons-making factories and two weapons-storage facilities. Reports speak of two caravans near the town of Khan Younis being blown up, together with a cheese factory in Gaza City and, in the central refugee camp of Nusseirat, a metal foundry. There were no fatal casualties from any of these attacks, though three children were reported to have been injured by flying debris.
So far, one might say, situation normal. This wearisome pattern of incitement and retaliation consistently emerges when the first rays of a possible peace negotiation flicker above the horizon – and at this moment, despite the diplomatic furore of the past few weeks (outlined in "March Reviewed"), a start to the US-inspired proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is far from impossible. So an upsurge in extremist action on one side or the other was not unexpected.
What is less explicable is the reaction of Western governments, led by the United States.
For example, US State Department spokesman, Philip J Crowley, said on Friday that although Israel has a right to defend itself, "our message remains to the Israelis and Palestinians that we need to get the proximity talks going, focus on the substance, move to direct negotiations and ultimately arrive at a settlement that ends the conflict once and for all."
The UK echoed the message. A Foreign Office official told the media that Britain encouraged "Israelis and Palestinians to focus efforts on negotiation and to engage urgently in US-backed proximity talks."
But statements like these, matched by those from the UN, the EU and elsewhere, simply do not reflect the realities of the situation. The proximity talks, if or when they take place, will be between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The military provocations and the indiscriminate firing of rockets onto the civilian population of Israel emanate from within Hamas-controlled Gaza. Hamas – and even more so the Al-Qaeda inspired militant groups operating within Gaza – are opposed tooth and nail to the concept of negotiating with Israel, either directly or at one remove by way of the proposed proximity talks.
So even if, by some heaven-sent miracle, the proposed round of indirect discussions hosted by George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, do lead to face-to-face negotiations, and they in turn result in an agreement on substantive issues, what would have been achieved? Hamas, which has dissociated itself from President Mahmoud Abbas's initiative, even though it has the backing of the Arab League, would not be party to the agreement. It would continue to pursue the support of the Palestinian man-in the-street, in the hope of eventually overturning the Fatah-led government of the West Bank.
In this struggle for power, Hamas is actually fighting on two fronts. For at its heels are the militant Islamist groups that refuse to abide by Hamas's virtual ceasefire, and indeed oppose the Hamas administration for failing to live up fully to extremist Muslim standards. A recent statement from the Jihadi Salafis ran: "We will not stop targeting the figures of this perverted, crooked government, breaking their bones and cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations." They and Jaljalat, Jund Ansar Allah, Army of the Nation, and the Salafi Army of Islam, to name some only, not only mount armed attacks on senior Hamas figures, but pursue their own agenda in attacking Israel.
This aspect of the Arab-Israeli dispute is the missing link in all the well-intentioned calls to Israel and "the Palestinians" to abandon recourse to arms and participate in the proposed proximity talks. Hamas, and the extremist militant groups it is signally failing to control, are not, and would not wish to be, parties to the peace discussions. But they are very much an element to be reckoned with before any final agreement can be achieved.
It would be best if, In their public statements, all those striving for a settlement in Israel-Palestine acknowledged this indisputable fact.