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Last Updated: Friday, 14 July 2006, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
Hostility envelops wider region
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent, St Petersburg

As so often in the Middle East, text and sub-text are inextricably bound up.

Thus a crisis that at first sight pits Israel against Hamas and Hezbollah, inevitably reaches out to involve Syria and Iran, both strong supporters of the Lebanese-based Shia movement.

Crater in southern Beirut

This is what makes this crisis so difficult to resolve. But it also underlines how dangerous its ramifications could be unless the fighting is halted.

Inevitably then, events in the Middle East have pushed themselves onto the G8 summit agenda here in St Petersburg.

Russian President Vladimir Putin set out his country's position, saying: "No hostage-takings are acceptable," but added that neither was "the use of full-scale force".

"All the sides that are involved in the conflict must immediately cease military action," he said.

Traditional differences

Many of the big international players with stakes in the region will be attending the G8 gathering. The Americans and of course the Russians are here; European powers like the French, the Germans and the British are full participants; and China - a key UN Security Council member - will also be making a guest appearance.

But there seems little any of these countries can do to influence events on the ground.

Iraqi Shias in street protest
Iraqi Shias protest in support of the Lebanese
There are the traditional differences in emphasis between them.

The Bush administration seems largely to have backed Israel's military action, while the Europeans, like the Russians, have expressed their concern that the Israeli attacks have been disproportionate in nature.

The French, with their historical ties to Lebanon, have expressed particular anguish at the Israeli attacks.

But all have called for the three captured Israeli soldiers at the heart of this crisis to be released.

The capture of these men - one by Palestinian militants and then two more by Hezbollah near the Lebanese border - were the immediate sparks that set off this two-front crisis.

Hopelessness

But its fundamental causes are deep-seated. There is Israel and Washington's antipathy towards the Hamas government.

There is also the problem of escalating rocket attacks on Israeli towns - something no Israeli government could ignore - which in itself would probably have prompted a military response.

There is the essential sense of hopelessness of the Palestinians with no diplomatic opening in sight.

And then there is the undoubted meddling of countries like Iran which are caught up in a wider power-play with Washington, linked both to Tehran's nuclear ambitions and to events on the ground in Iraq.

Flags at the G8 venue in St Petersburg
G8 leaders have few diplomatic levers over the Middle East crisis
Given these complex linkages, the international community is uncertain about where exactly to bring its diplomatic weight to bear. Hamas and Hezbollah also have shadowy command structures.

In many ways it is the very weakness of Hamas which makes the crisis in the Gaza Strip so intractable. Its leadership of the Palestinians is contested, its own leaders are split between Gaza and Damascus, and many paramilitary and militant groups that are linked to it may often act on their own or at the bidding of outside forces.

This situation is mirrored in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, which regards itself as a resistance movement, has effectively set up its own institutions and infrastructure in the south of the country. Syrian and Iranian influence in both cases is important, but can be over-stated.

So for all its concern, the G8 meeting risks appearing powerless - it has few diplomatic levers to pull - and the leaders meeting here in St Petersburg could largely be relegated to watching events unfold from the sidelines.






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