March 2011

After a lengthy lull, violent confrontation has returned to the centre stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the past week, the Israeli army and Palestinian militants have appeared keen to flex their muscles with regular exchanges of fire. Israel’s tanks and fighter planes have attacked the Gaza Strip, killing civilians and fighters, while Palestinian militants have launched mortars and rockets, some reaching as far as the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Beersheva.

Israel has admitted that it was behind the abduction of a Gazan engineer who went missing more than a month ago while travelling on a train in the Ukraine. The whereabouts of Dirar Abu Sisi, the operations manager of Gaza’s only power plant, have been the subject of intense speculation since he disappeared on February 18 as he travelled on a train to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

There were growing indications last week that the international community has abandoned hopes of reviving Middle East peace talks, effectively leaving Israel and the Palestinians to battle out the next few months with their own unilateral strategies. The daily Haaretz newspaper reported on Thursday that the Quartet, the international group overseeing the peace process, had reached its pessimistic conclusion after meetings with local officials in Tel Aviv and Ramallah earlier this month.

Despite mounting speculation that Mr Netanyahu is preparing to unveil a peace initiative in the coming weeks, Haaretz newspaper revealed last week that he has been conducting negotiations with the National Union to bring three of its four MPs into his coalition. The party is considered the most right-wing in the 120-member Knesset. Mr Netanyahu also announced the appointment of a hawkish former general as the new head of the National Security Council.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s advisers conceded last week that the Israeli prime minister is more downcast than they have ever seen him. The reason for his gloominess is to be found in Israel’s diplomatic and strategic standing, which some analysts suggest is at its lowest ebb in living memory. A global survey for Britain’s BBC published on Monday will have only reinforced that assessment: Israel was rated among the least popular countries, with just 21 percent seeing it in a positive light.

More than a thousand Palestinians who staged a day of rage in the West Bank city of Hebron last week were left with few illusions about how their struggle for liberation differs from that of Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans. The protesters were confronted, on one side, by massed ranks of Israeli paramilitary police, while Palestinian security forces assisted by blocking the entry of demonstrators from the other side. Squeezed into their own little Tahrir Square, the protesters suffered tear gas and baton attacks from the Israeli police while the Palestinian forces mutely stood by.