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Peace in Middle East still nowhere in sight

By Wang Lei | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-28 07:51

This photo taken on Dec 25, 2023 shows damaged buildings after an Israeli airstrike in al-Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. At least 70 Palestinians were killed on Sunday in an Israeli airstrike on the al-Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, reported the state-run Palestine TV. [Photo/Xinhua]

The Israel-Palestine conflict, which broke out more than two months ago, has already claimed over 20,000 lives, mostly of children and women.

There is no immediate end in sight to the conflict. But despite pounding Gaza for more than two and a half months, Israel is far from achieving its military goals. Nor have its attacks forced Palestinians in Gaza to distance themselves from Hamas. Instead, the attacks have exacerbated Palestinian resentment against Israel.

So what happens next? Judging from the current situation, the short-term cease-fire doesn't seem to be working.

For Israel, the priority is to take advantage of the US' favoritism to inflict as much damage as possible on Hamas's remaining strongholds in Gaza. And for Hamas, the priority is to hang on until Israel, failing to achieve its biggest military goal, is forced into political negotiations.

Indeed, some factors are restricting the escalation, if not continuation, of the conflict. The longer the war drags on, the higher the economic cost Israel has to pay. Israel's tourism, services and construction sectors have been hit hard since Oct 7, with Israel suffering direct economic losses of more than $8 billion in the first month of the conflict, and witnessing a seven-fold increase in the national budget deficit, currency depreciation, and an increasing risk of investment outflows.

Also, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has evoked international calls for a truce, and domestic opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government is intensifying.

As for Hamas, a prolonged conflict with Israel would mean losing influence in Gaza. So far, though, Hamas has survived Israel's intense military campaign.

Moreover, there are signs that the US and other countries are trying to promote other political forces to replace Hamas and orchestrate a default takeover of Gaza after the war. As such, Hamas is also facing pressure to change its struggle strategy, flexibly respond to changes, and return to political negotiations.

The US and other Western countries, on the other hand, have no reason to support Israel given the bloody civilian casualties in Gaza, and are bound to damage their international image if they continue to back Israel. In fact, the Western camp is divided on the Palestine-Israel issue, with the Western countries under pressure to change their policies and restrain Israel's reckless behavior.

The Joe Biden administration seems intent on completing its strategic withdrawal from the Middle East and using its resources to take advantage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. If the Palestine-Israel conflict drags on or escalates, it will affect the US' strategic deployment of resources, and impact its relations with Arab countries and its interests in the Middle East.

Despite the insistence of Israel to continue pounding Gaza, the international community should still try to de-escalate the situation by opening a political dialogue and finally reaching a ceasefire agreement.

The temporary humanitarian ceasefire agreed between Israel and Palestine on Nov 22 was a welcome development, as it led to a significant exchange of detainees, a multi-day cease-fire in Gaza, and safe access for humanitarian aid. As long as the international community works together to help end the conflict by promoting peace talks, tensions between Palestine and Israel can be eased. To restore lasting peace, however, more direct channels of communication have to be established.

Since the outbreak of the conflict, China has maintained close communication and strengthened cooperation with Arab countries and the Islamic world, providing humanitarian assistance and making arduous efforts to end the fighting.

In contrast, the US and other Western countries have not yet shouldered their due responsibility of brokering a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In fact, the conflict has dragged on for more than two and a half months because of the misplaced policy of Western countries, led by the US, to blindly favor Israel and ignore Palestinian interests. This has to change.

The pressing task now is to broker a cease-fire and help arrange for an exchange of detained civilians so as to prevent the loss of more lives, and the international community needs to fully implement the requirements of UN Security Council Resolution 2712, clearing the way for adequate humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza and humanitarian agencies to carry out their work safely.

Since the Rafah port alone cannot handle the needed volume of humanitarian supplies, more relief channels to Gaza should be opened. For a long-term resolution to the Israel-Palestine issue, however, the international community has to return to the "two-state solution", because the root cause of the conflict is denial of the rights to statehood, existence and return to the Palestinian state by Israel and its Western backers.

The international community should use this crisis to further build consensus for peace, rebuild credible multilateral processes, restart direct negotiations between Palestine and Israel, and work for the permanent settlement of the Palestinian issue.

The author is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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