Editorial: Cycle of violence

The killings in and around Gaza are an affront to civilised behaviour and testament to the destructive mindlessness of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

They are striking fear into hundreds of thousands of civilians, killing innocents and setting back hopes for a sustainable and comprehensive settlement.

Condemnation, though, will not stop this nasty little war, such is the investment of both sides in drawing blood. The Israeli Government, which is an unravelling coalition facing a general election, and Hamas, which is in control of Gaza and keen to test its independence from Egypt's first democratic government, have reasons to keep attacking. They seek to boost support among their followers.

Those obdurate motives explain the slowness of the UN to harness the power of the Security Council, and accounts for the passivity of the main powers. They know the impetus for war is too strong at the moment for intervention to have any chance of success, but that time - perhaps rapidly - will erode the willingness to fight. Neither Israel nor Hamas has good cause to prolong the conflict. Occupation of Gaza would cost Israeli lives - deeply unpopular with that nation's electorate - and Hamas does not have the capacity to do much more than fire rockets.

The worry is that the conflict will slip out of control. Hizbollah, the ally of Hamas in Lebanon, humiliated Israeli arms in 2006 and might be tempted to repeat the exercise. The Syrian Government might seek to deflect the attacks of its enemies within by raising patriotic enthusiasm with an attack on Israel. Iran, the backer of Hizbollah and Hamas, might seek to divert Israel's plan to bomb Tehran's nuclear facilities by orchestrating attacks from its puppets.

Such a widening of the conflict would tip the region into serious war, with unpredictable outcomes.

It is the Egyptian Government that presently has the most potential to stop that occurring. It has slight leverage on Israel because of that nation's wish to maintain useful connections with the Islamic government in Cairo, and Hamas would be damaged if punitive border controls were reimposed by the Egyptians.

That entanglement of various nations and unpredictable results is a rerun of every conflict between Arabs and Zionists for the best part of a century, and it will continue until the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians for a nation state are fulfilled. Only Israel can do that.

It is militarily dominant in the region and possesses nuclear weapons; it is united in its determination to preserve the Jewish homeland; it has the backing of the most powerful world power, the US; no Arab state or combination of states, let alone guerrilla groups, could remove Israel, and in that sense it is secure. But it is a worried country. It is constantly under threats it cannot entirely remove because its governments are incapable of mustering the political support needed for a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

The extreme Zionists, upon whom any likely coalition in Jerusalem depends, are a brake on Israel making peace. For the time being, therefore, stalemate and outbreaks of violence, can be expected. Eventually, though, most Israelis will become tired of their threatened existence - of the psychological and material wounds it brings to their society - and sue for a sustainable accommodation with the Palestinians.

The Press