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Friendless in Gaza

Palestinians suffering under Israel's ruthless onslaught are being shunned by the rest of the Arab world

If it bleeds it leads", is an old rule of thumb used by newspaper editors. But after events late this week in Cairo, world headlines are suddenly dealing in hope. Hamas and Israel have agreed to extend a ceasefire in their war in Gaza for another five days, in a bid negotiate a more permanent truce.

"There has been progress on many points," Palestinian delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmad declared, "but more work has to be done on bridging the differences on security issues."

The Israeli team has returned to Jerusalem and the Palestinians have gone back to Ramallah to consult with their leaders before negotiations recommence.

But the history of Middle East conflict has taught both sides not to count their chickens before they have hatched. So far, the Israeli government has been keeping quiet about the extended ceasefire, which could be a good sign - or the opposite.

Moreover, rockets continue to snake out of Gaza, and Israel wastes no time retaliating. In a familiar tit-for-tat pattern, one side accuses the other of violating the initial three-day ceasefire and decides to respond accordingly.

If the month-long bombardment of Gaza tells us anything, it is that there is a fine line between retaliation and aggression.

This wave of clashes between Hamas and Israel started when the latter used the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers as a pretext to hunt down Hamas agents in the West Bank.

Israeli officials knew from the beginning that the teenagers had been killed, but decided that a "Bring the Boys Back" campaign was needed to justify the manhunt and mass arrest of Hamas cadres.

Hamas in Gaza responded to the mass arrest of their people with rockets, and Israel retaliated with overwhelming force, followed by a ground invasion.

The crux of the ongoing negotiations in Cairo is Israel's demand that Gaza be demilitarised. Hamas, though, has refused to give up its weapons. The refusal seems reasonable. If there is to be a two-state solution for this historical conflict over territory, demanding that a sovereign neighbour be disarmed should not be an option.

"Permanent calm", says a Hamas spokesman, could be achieved only if the blockade on Gaza was lifted and restrictions on the movement of its 1.8 million residents eased. This should include expanding the fishing limits from five to 10 kilometres off the coast.

Ongoing ceasefire talks are being overseen by Egypt, an ally of Israel and not exactly an "honest broker". The government in Cairo has a long-standing mistrust, even hatred, of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that was elected to rule the Gaza Strip.

Like other Arab regimes - all of which are authoritarian in their way - Egypt does not want to see any Islamist political party come to power, whether by democratic means or otherwise.

Hence the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after it was elected to power in 2012. The same antipathy is perhaps now on display in Egypt's silence over the slaughter in Gaza, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,900 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Meanwhile 64 soldiers and three civilians have been killed on the Israeli side in the past month.

Egypt's willingness to remain silent as fellow Muslims are killed and injured in such great numbers is motivated by its desire to see Hamas weakened and a stern warning sent to other Islamist movements in the region.

Sad but true, the Palestinians are learning that they can't depend on anyone in the region for help. No tough-talking Arab dictator will come to their rescue. And no amount of yelling from anti-war protesters on the streets of London, Paris or New York will change the mindset of Israeli leaders, who have shown that they couldn't care less about the moral high ground.


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