Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Truce diplomacy fails for now

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

Debris in Gaza City
Palestinian medical officials say some 370 people have died in the air strikes

Diplomacy suddenly played a brief role in the Gaza conflict with a proposal for a 48-hour ceasefire on which a more permanent agreement could be built.

However, the plan was rejected by Israeli ministers on the grounds that it was not permanent and would give Hamas a chance to regroup.

So the Israeli attacks go on, with the prospect of ground operations getting closer.

At the same time, Hamas is continuing to fire rockets into Israel, including some of its newer longer-range ones based on the old Soviet Grad, also known as the Katyusha. Such a rocket represents a significantly greater threat to Israel and Beersheba was hit (a school, though empty) on Wednesday morning.

The plan did appear to split the Israeli leadership to an extent, foreshadowing perhaps arguments in future about when to wind down this assault. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were reportedly opposed to it but Defence Minister Ehud Barak (who previously has been speaking of a "war to the end") was inclined to examine it.

In the end they agreed to carry on with the attack but the issue of how a ceasefire might operate and the conditions that might be attached to it are now in the open.

The plan was put forward by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who can often be relied on to come up with an imaginative proposal in a crisis.

France also happens to hold the current presidency of the European Union (though they hand over that role to the Czechs at midnight) and has used this position to get EU foreign ministers to issue a statement calling for a ceasefire. President Sarkozy might be getting involved as well.

At the same time, the Quartet of the US, the UN, Russia and the EU, has also backed a ceasefire, unlike the Lebanon war in which the US held back.

So there is some pressure on Israel and while the Israelis do not like taking international advice, they have to listen to it, especially to the voice from Washington.

Commitment sought

The key issue seems to be whether Hamas can be persuaded to give a commitment that a new ceasefire would be permanent. It might also have to agree to stop arms smuggling, a potentially impossible condition for it to accept.

Israel could conceivably argue that its actions had materially changed the nature of the Gaza confrontation and that it had been able to re-impose the ceasefire, which Hamas ended, on its terms.

However, it would leave Hamas in control of Gaza, for damage done to the Hamas organisation can be repaired quite quickly. Gone would be the Israeli hopes of destroying Hamas as a viable military force.

Gone, too, for the moment, would be the Israeli strategic intention of getting Gaza back in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, whose forces control the West Bank and whose leaders are negotiating with Israel about a peace settlement.

And what of Hamas? It took a blow in the surprise Israeli attack of last Saturday. It must now consider whether its interests lie in developing a scorched-earth policy of resistance at all costs or whether to accept terms that would at least leave it in control of Gaza.

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