Conflict prepares to head for the brink

As the strategic realignment of Middle Eastern powers circles around the old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now playing out with renewed ferocity in Gaza and southern Israel, it is unclear what, if anything, will bring the two enemies back from the brink.

The meeting of three key Arab leaders - Qatar's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egypt's President, Mohammed Mursi - in Cairo at the weekend revealed deep frustration at the futility of diplomatic efforts so far.

''Our meetings have become a waste of money and a waste of time,'' said Sheikh al-Thani, Agence France-Presse reported.

''We are meeting today and we will issue a statement. The statement will mean nothing. The whole situation needs a clear and honest review.''

Mursi and Erdogan rejected pressure from Washington to convince Hamas to end militant rocket fire into Israel, instead blaming Israel for the renewed violence.

If there is no agreement over a ceasefire, Hamas leaders are betting that the new Muslim Brotherhood-led Egyptian government will step up should Israel launch a ground invasion, said Mkhaimar Abusada, associate professor of politics at Gaza's Al-Azhar University.

''They feel Egypt will not allow the Israelis to strike Gaza for 22 days without taking action,'' he said, referring to Israel's last major incursion into Gaza, Operation Cast Lead in late December 2008 until January 2009.

But Egypt was not interested in any kind of military intervention, he said. The country is desperately trying to recover from its own drawn-out revolution, its economy is a mess and it has yet to finalise its constitution.

A senior Hamas official told AFP the movement was reluctant to agree to a truce because it does not believe mediators could guarantee the terms of a ceasefire, while Israel's military campaign showed no signs of letting up.

One high-ranking Israeli official told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper: ''If we don't reach a ceasefire agreement soon, there will be no avoiding a ground operation. We won't drag this out over weeks of exchanges of fire. We are close to exhausting the attacks from the air and that is why we're preparing the ground option. This isn't an empty threat. It's real.''

Gazans faced another 24 hours of intense shelling from navy boats stationed off the coast and regular air strikes. After a lull overnight, rockets fired from Gaza landed in Ashkelon and the Eshkol region, the Israeli Defence Forces confirmed.

The three major players - Israel, Egypt and Hamas - are ''caught in a dangerous loop'', said Avi Melamed, a strategic affairs analyst in Israel.

''The way out from that loop starts with the understanding that the responsibility to stabilise the situation ... primarily lies on the shoulders of Hamas and Egypt,'' he said, noting most of the weapons are smuggled into Gaza via the tunnels that link it to Egypt.

''It is in Hamas's and Egypt's interest to create new ground rules inside the Gaza Strip that will substantially limit - if not eliminate - the abilities of the various Palestinian organisations to play with the flames as they please.''

But Hamas seemed to be ''going all the way to the brink'', Professor Abusada said.

''For the past four years, Hamas has been preparing itself for this day,'' building bunkers, acquiring better weapons from Libya and more sophisticated military technology that allows the automatic launch of weapons.

Israel would not tolerate more rockets being launched at its major cities, making a ground invasion more likely, he said. But sending in troops to Gaza is a deeply risky move for Israel - if it removes Hamas from power it would unleash ''chaos and anarchy'' on the Gaza Strip.

Instead, Israel might prefer to teach Hamas a lesson, but keep it intact as a government and as a movement, Professor Abusada said.

Gazans are divided. ''Those who support Hamas feel very happy that missiles are landing in Tel Aviv. But others are sick and tired, they are exhausted. They are saying they have never recovered from [the last war] and all they want is to live a normal life. It's hard to tell who is in the majority.

''The hard fact is that there is no military solution to the Gaza problem,'' he said.

''Israel could kill all the Hamas leadership, but that's not going to put an end to the Palestinian struggle. There has to be a political solution to this. Without that, this conflict is going to go on and on.''

Sydney Morning Herald