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Decision of arms not diplomacy in Gaza

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Diplomacy will have to wait until there is a decision of arms in Gaza.

Smoke from explosions in Gaza City (04/01/09)
At the moment, diplomacy carries little weight

This conclusion is inevitable in the face of a determination by the Israeli government that it faces an unacceptable threat from Gaza that must be dealt with.

By delaying ground operations for a week, it gave Hamas a chance to back down and call a halt to the firing of rockets into Israel. But Hamas chose confrontation, probably fearing that to do otherwise would be to show weakness.

Theoretical solution

In theory, a diplomatic solution is on the table. It would consist of the following: a mutual ceasefire, a prohibition on the smuggling of arms into Gaza and a relaxation of the Israeli economic squeeze on Gaza.

This would give something to each side. There would be calm across the border, Israel would get some assurance - which would have to be backed up by an enforcement mechanism - of reducing at least the entry of arms into Gaza and Gazans would see the prospect of an improvement in their daily lives.

However when or even if it is possible to talk seriously of such an agreement remains to be seen. On Saturday evening, after the Israeli ground operations began, the Security Council found itself unable to agree on a new call for a ceasefire.

The United States blocked a statement with the argument that Hamas had not agreed to a previous ceasefire call. A new statement, in the words of the US deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff, "would not be adhered to and would have no underpinning for success, [and] would not do credit to the council".

European visitors

The visit of President Sarkozy of France, who arrives in Egypt on Monday and then goes on to Israel and the Palestinian territories, will lead to more talk of a cessation and the conditions attached to it.

The former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is the representative of the Quartet of the US, the UN, Russia and the EU, has also been busy.

The European Union's troika of foreign ministers is also visiting on Monday, but at this stage of a major conflict like this, outsiders from Europe cannot make an effective intervention.

With the Bush administration blaming Hamas, Israel has the diplomatic support it needs.

Not that Israel will want to ignore international opinion. It has been careful in its operations to stress that it will maintain humanitarian supplies into Gaza.

What outcome?

The unanswered question is whether Israel will succeed, first in its military operations to stop the rockets, and then in its diplomatic aim of getting a durable arrangement.

The war in Lebanon showed the difficulties of combat against a well-entrenched militia-type organisation.

So there is a danger for Israel of its troops getting bogged down to no great effect.

Much depends on whether Hamas has been able to recover from the shock it must have received eight days ago when the air assault began.

On the other hand, a decisive Israeli ground intervention could leave the door open to negotiation - but only if Hamas chooses to walk through that door.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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