by Gerald Butt
Middle East Correspondent
THE inhabitants of the Gaza Strip remain in shock after the Israeli assault on Beit Hanoun last week, in which 18 Palestinian civilians were killed. The incident has highlighted the political and diplomatic vacuum in the region, and has hardened anti-Israeli and anti-Western sentiments in the Arab world.
The Israeli army says that the attack was an error resulting from a technical failure in a tank’s artillery radar system. But this explanation has not been accepted in the Gaza Strip. According to the Revd Hanna Massad of the Gaza Baptist Church, the assault on Beit Hanoun caused “a vast amount of infrastructure damage. Tanks ploughed through people’s homes to avoid travelling on the streets.”
Bishop Munib Younan, the leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, said the attack on Beit Hanoun, which caused “extensive destruction of property”, showed “blatant disregard for innocent human life”. European Union Foreign Ministers had earlier denounced the Israeli action as “unacceptable”.
Palestinian and Arab anger increased when the United States vetoed a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council condemning the Beit Hanoun killings. The US ambassador said the draft was “unbalanced” because it did not condemn Hamas militants for firing rockets into Israel, which provoked the Israeli retaliation.
Against this background of international bickering, there seems little prospect of a diplomatic move to end the violence in Gaza, which, in recent months, has resulted in the deaths of about 300 Palestinians and three Israelis. Several weeks of negotiations between the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas leaders have so far failed to produce an agreement on a government of national unity which would be acceptable to the international community. And the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, following his army’s experience in Lebanon, appears to be in no mood to think about peace talks with the Palestinians.
These unpromising diplomatic prospects, combined with chronic economic and social problems, are making life for Palestinians in Gaza increasingly difficult. “As a minister,” Mr Massad said, “I try to encourage the people to have hope. But things are as bleak as ever.”
The Beit Hanoun killings — which have been shown in detail on Arab satellite television — have reinforced Arab hostility towards Israel and the West. In the view of one Saudi commentator, the perceived injustice of the killings and the subsequent US veto “breeds fury in Arab and Muslim hearts, promotes anger in the Arab and Muslim streets, and fuels hatred for those who shield killers from punishment, applaud injustice, and condone the slaughter of innocent civilians.”
Building trust between the Arab world and Israel looks a formidable challenge.