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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 July 2006, 19:08 GMT 20:08 UK
Why dreams must die if peace is to come
By Jeremy Bowen
Middle East editor, Jerusalem

When it comes to the Palestinians and the Israelis, it is usually a tale of two stories.

Apartment damaged in an Israeli missile attack in Gaza City
It is the first big armed crisis since Palestinians voted Hamas to power

They are able to take the same set of events and draw utterly different conclusions about how they got to where they are, what is happening now and what to do next.

When it is not a tale of two stories, it is a tale of more than two, when one side cannot even agree with its confreres what is happening. For people who live under the same sun and breathe the same air, empathy is a foreign land.

In that sense the crisis in Gaza is business as usual.

The Israelis and Palestinians are levelling the same accusations against each other, accusing each other of terrorism and oppression. Both believe that they are acting in self defence.

Forget whether one version is true and the other false. The important thing is that the people who hold these views believe that they are true, and their leaders make decisions based on them.

Maybe that is entirely reasonable. After all, there is no political process of any sort between the Palestinians and Israel, and to talk of a "peace process" is a bad joke.

Traditional responses

At times like this, when leaders are under intense pressure, they fall back on some of the old formulas that have been tried - and which have failed - many times before.

Ehud Olmert, an experienced Israeli politician who is still low down on the learning curve of being a prime minister, has fallen back on traditional responses to a security crisis with the Palestinians.

Their only chance of creating a decent future for their children is to make a political agreement about sharing the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean

He has taken a tough line, and backed it with Israel's armed forces. He and his staff would argue that they are using force sparingly, that they are taking care to avoid unnecessary Palestinian casualties and any risk to the missing soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit.

And they would also say that they have no alternative, that they did not start it, that force used by the Palestinians must be answered with force.

The two leaders of the Palestinians who live in the land that they want for a state, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah are under pressure too.

Mr Haniya is in a particularly uncomfortable position. Unless Hamas put down their guns [at present highly unlikely] and release their prisoner [very unlikely without the release of Palestinian prisoners] he could end up being killed by Israel, like other Hamas leaders.

Israeli mobile artillery unit outside Gaza
Israel has put military pressure on Gaza since its soldier was captured

But he argues that the Palestinians did not start this crisis; that Israel has used its power recklessly in Gaza in the last few months, without regard for the lives of Palestinians.

This is the first big armed crisis since Palestinians voted Hamas into power in January.

It is not quite the same as the standoffs and clashes that Israel had over the years with Fatah, the rival Palestinian faction.

After the Oslo peace process started in 1993, Fatah had an ambivalent attitude to the armed struggle.

Hamas does not have that problem. It has a political strategy, and until recently it was on a long ceasefire, but it has never promised to put down its weapons. So now it is using them, and will fight as Israel pushes further into the Gaza Strip.

'Force does not work'

But in the 39 years since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, history has delivered a few fundamental lessons, which neither side at the moment is in any mood to absorb.

The most important lesson for Israel is that force does not work.

It can deliver some tactical advantages. The assassination of many of the leaders of Hamas, for example, was a severe blow to the movement. But did it kill it? Not even slightly. Hamas can still kill Israelis, and it has expanded its operations to winning elections.

Palestinian militants with Qassam rocket
Militants are unlikely to lay down their weapons any time soon

The most important lesson for the Palestinians is that force does not work.

It can deliver some tactical advantages. Resistance to occupation, at the moment, is popular. But has it ever threatened the existence of the Jewish state? Not for a second. And is it bringing the creation of an independent Palestinian state any closer? Not by an inch.

I can already hear supporters of the Palestinians and the Israelis protesting that they have tried making political concessions and have had them hurled back on a tide of blood. But the alternative to not trying again could be another generation of bloodshed, and who wants that?

If this crisis escalates further, Israel may well be tempted to topple the Hamas government. But what will happen after that? Would there be more or less chaos in the territories?

And Hamas may be tempted, if this crisis escalates, to kill Israeli civilians. But would that make the Israelis get out of Gaza? No: it would encourage them to stay longer, and to use more force.

Even if the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians agreed with this interpretation of the use of force over 40 years, it will not help this time round. The Gaza crisis is doomed to run its course, in the same way that Palestinians and Israelis are doomed to live alongside each other.

But eventually, their only chance of creating a decent future for their children is to make a political agreement about sharing the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean that is acceptable to both sides.

To do that they will both have to recognise that peace has a price. Up to now, in all the years of negotiations, neither side has been prepared to pay what is needed in lost dreams and hard choices.

You cannot do peace on the cheap. But the alternative is much more costly, for everyone.


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