Friday, 19 March 2010

What tune will the Quartet play?

The latest game in town: who can embarrass visiting guests the most?

Israel appeared top of the league last week, when Shas party leader and Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, selected the moment that US Vice President Joe Biden set foot in the country to announce a new 1600-unit housing construction project in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood. The intense diplomatic fallout has yet to settle.

Not to be outdone, a hitherto unknown extremist group inside Gaza which calls itself Ansar al-Sunna, chose a first visit yesterday by the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Lady Ashton, to launch a Kassam rocket into Israel, the third in 24 hours. This one hit the Netiv Ha’asara area and killed a Thai greenhouse worker in his thirties.

This newly-established militant group, which is inspired by Al-Qaida, embarrassed the Hamas administration by its action almost as much as the EU visitors. Hamas has been faced over the past three years by a mounting security challenge from militant groups within Gaza. Sharing the hardline Islamist ideology of Al-Qaida, they have mounted a series of armed attacks, including bombings against Hamas officials and facilities. Their rationale is that Hamas has failed to impose Islamist rule in the Strip, that internet cafés, music shops and pharmacies that sell contraceptives are all allowed to flourish. Denouncing the Hamas régime as "crooked and perverted", they see their role as "cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations".

Hamas have been acting in a noticeably low-key way since the end of Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and have been observing an unofficial truce on firing rockets. Concerned about further retaliation, they have been urging militant groups not to mount attacks on Israel, though with little success.

If Lady Ashton and her team came to Gaza prepared to castigate Israel for its Operation Cast Lead, the wind has been rather taken out of their sails. "I'm extremely shocked by the rocket attack and the tragic loss of life," said Catherine Ashton, immediately after the attack, adding that she was anxious that the proximity talks get under way as quickly as possible.

She is now in Moscow, in anticipation of today's meeting of the Quartet which is likely to put its weight behind the resumption of negotiations, despite the disruptive events of the past week. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who will be participating in the Quartet meeting, also expressed his condemnation of the rocket attack. "All such acts of terror and violence against civilians," he said, "are totally unacceptable and contrary to international law."

So perhaps it will be with a new sense of the realities of the situation that the Quartet will conduct its deliberations today. They may take on board the fact that the threat of extreme Islamism to the stability of the Middle East, and to the "moderate" Arab governments of the region, is real. They need to appreciate that Iran in particular, with its aim of "devouring the Arab world" (in the words of Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak) is an ever-present danger. Its nuclear and political ambitions must be curbed. Perhaps the Quartet will realise that Hamas is a broken reed in this struggle, and that in consequence Israel and the Palestinian Authority must come to an accommodation, and soon, as a first step towards winning the conflict against extremists who would impose their way of life on the whole civilized world.

If the Quartet succeed in conveying this message to the parties concerned, and in ensuring that a start is indeed made soon in the proximity talks, they will have proved their worth.

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