Israel is on a rampage again in Gaza. As a result of Israel’s air and naval bombardment which commenced on 8th July followed by the launch of an Israeli ground offensive on 18th July in Gaza, 438 Palestinians, mostly civilians, had been killed and another 2600 had been wounded by last Sunday. The casualties on the Israeli side were much lower including 18 soldiers and two civilians. As Israel continued its air and ground offensive and Hamas continued its rocket attacks on Israel, there were no signs of an early cease-fire. Meanwhile, a humanitarian disaster of huge proportions was in the making with the people in Gaza living under siege subjected as they were to land and naval blockades. The short five-hour cease-fire brokered by the UN to allow humanitarian assistance to enter Gaza was only of marginal help in alleviating the misery of its 1.8 million people, crammed into a narrow 41km long coastal strip.

The UN Security Council unfortunately has not been able to take any effective action so far to stop Israel’s brutal offensive against Gaza despite a number of meetings, the last being late in the evening of 20th July. This was not surprising considering the unsympathetic stance of the US towards Hamas which controls Gaza. Arab governments, most of them mired in internal strife or beholden to the US, Israel’s benefactor and protector-in-chief, merely paid lip service to the misery of the people of Gaza. An example was the cease-fire proposal made by Egypt, which, according to the Economist, “amounted virtually to a surrender by Hamas”. Unsurprisingly, the proposal, which would have kept in place the siege of Gaza, was accepted by Israel and rejected by Hamas. The Muslim world, barring some voices of protest here and there, remained either indifferent or incapable of taking any effective action to stop Israel’s outrageous onslaught against Gaza. As for the rest of the world, few dared to link the crisis in Gaza to the urgent need for a comprehensive settlement in Palestine based on a two-state formula endorsed by the UN.

The immediate cause of the latest crisis in Gaza can be traced to the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers last month. Israel blamed Hamas for the killing and, despite the rejection of the charge by Hamas, arrested over 500 of its members including 50 who had been freed from prison by Israel earlier in return for the release of an Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas custody. In protest against these arrests and the continued blockade of Gaza in violation of the November 2012 cease-fire agreement, Hamas launched rocket attacks on Israel on 28th June. The Israeli response to those rocket attacks gradually escalated into a full-fledged air and ground attack on Gaza with the aim of destroying and incapacitating as much of the Hamas human and physical infrastructure in the territory as possible.

The latest crisis in Gaza, therefore, is partly the result of the deep frustration that its people feel because of the blockade of the territory and the continued closure of the crossings into Israel and Egypt. This state of siege has turned Gaza into an open-air prison. Israel’s objective in the continuation of the blockade of Gaza has been to undermine the authority and popularity of Hamas whom it considers a terrorist organization. However, as the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is the other man’s freedom fighter. The Palestinian view of Hamas is that of a resistance movement against the Israeli occupation. What is particularly lamentable is that Egypt under its new President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew the elected government of Muhammad Morsi last year, is also hostile towards Hamas. For this reason or perhaps to please the US, Egypt has maintained its own blockade of Gaza’s crossing into Egypt, thereby, strangulating the life in the territory.

A deeper look into the situation in Gaza reveals that the latest crisis is closely linked with the over-all Palestinian question. Israel has been vehemently opposed to the formation of the Palestinian unity government by the Fatah party and Hamas on 2 June this year after the failure of the US-brokered peace talks between Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. Israel’s attack on Gaza may be partly aimed at undermining the authority and the prestige of the unity government whom Israel considers as a threat to its interests. Obviously Israel finds it advantageous to deal with a Palestinian movement divided into opposing factions rather dealing with a united Palestinian front. It may, therefore, prefer to see Gaza under the control of an enfeebled Hamas rather than a strong Palestinian unity government which may be more effective in pleading the Palestinian case internationally. Israel may also not go all the way towards the total destruction of Hamas because of its apprehension that such a step would create a political vacuum to be filled up by an even more extremist Palestinian party.

Last week Hamas issued its own ten-point plan for cease-fire, which called for the lifting of the siege of Gaza, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the reopening of Gaza’s seaport and airport. It also suggested that a cease-fire could be followed by a ten-year truce. Apparently, Hamas has also been in touch with Turkey and Qatar to broker a cease-fire with Israel. These efforts are obviously opposed by Egypt, which is not in favour of giving room for mediation to either Turkey or Qatar for the cease-fire. It should be recalled that Egypt’s relations with both have been frosty since the overthrow of Morsi’s elected government by the Egyptian military headed by al-Sisi.

Hopefully, the current visit of the UN Secretary General to the region in search of a formula for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and the efforts of the international community would help in putting an end to the ongoing hostilities in the near future. But as past experience shows, this would be just a temporary pause waiting for another crisis to disturb peace in the region. In the ultimate analysis, durable peace in Gaza and the rest of Palestine would remain elusive as long as Israel maintains its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories in violation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Only a comprehensive settlement based on the two-state formula would help in the restoration of durable peace in the region. The essential ingredients of such a settlement would be Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories to be vacated by Israel, and a just solution of the Palestinian refugee issue in return for recognition of and peace with Israel. Till this goal of a comprehensive settlement is achieved, the region will remain prone to armed conflicts and instability.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.