Lull in Gaza presents a slim opportunity

The attention of the world is focused once again on the Middle East in the hope that the fragile ceasefire brokered chiefly by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last Wednesday will hold. The ceasefire took effect after eight days of cross-border fighting that killed 163 Palestinians and six Israelis, but already there have been serious violations. Less than an hour after the ceasefire was announced, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by an unmanned drone, and on Friday one Palestinian was killed and at least 10 others wounded after Israeli soldiers stationed at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel opened fire on them, according to medical sources. The dead man was trying to put a Hamas flag on the fence that runs between the town of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza strip and Israel.

These sorts of incidents could trigger fresh rocket assaults on Israeli territory from Hamas, which would almost certainly be met with another show of overwhelming force from the Israel defence forces, and possibly a ground assault into Gaza. But notwithstanding the seriousness of the violations there is reason to hope the ceasefire will continue to be officially honoured by both sides for the time being, for the simple reason that neither is prepared to risk the consequences if the ceasefire is abandoned. There is an opening for true peace-building on top of the damage control offered by the ceasefire, but any chance for success must take into account the region's rapidly changing dynamics.

Mr Morsi has been roundly praised for his role in the negotiation process, and clearly this signals a rise in Egypt's regional and international clout. The old regime led by Hosni Mubarak could not have held any sway with Hamas. And while Mr Morsi made no secret of his personal feelings _ he called the Israeli bombardment of Gaza "a blatant aggression against humanity" _ he recognises that Hamas should be faulted for its provocations as well. He is committed to maintaining Egypt's long-standing peace treaty with Israel and putting a stop to the smuggling of arms through Egyptian territory into Gaza.

George Mitchell, Middle East envoy for the Obama administration, said: "He [Mr Morsi] has clearly recognised Egypt's national interest here, and hopefully this can succeed and take hold." It is troubling that while basking in such international praise Mr Morsi announced on Thursday that he was taking on sweeping new powers for himself. Possibly counting on the troubles next door to provide some distraction, Mr Morsi issued a declaration putting himself above the judiciary and saying the Islamist-dominated assembly writing the new constitution could not be dissolved by legal challenges. Mr Morsi defended the declaration by saying it was necessary to sweep away the vestiges of the old regime which are being protected by the judiciary. The announcement was met with widespread protests in Egyptian cities, but for now at least it appears most of the population is behind him.

Another thing the ceasefire showed clearly is that it is Hamas that is calling the shots for the Palestinian people. This brings up a couple of interesting points. First, it makes Israel's refusal to include Hamas in negotiations over a two-state solution suspect, since clearly the Israelis were willing to negotiate with Hamas over the ceasefire. Second, it points to a need to bring President Mahmoud Abbas and his more moderate Palestinian Authority into the dialogue, as polls show that most Palestinians back such a move.

As for Israel, many observers are saying the nearness of general elections influenced both the timing of the offensive and the ceasefire, and that President Benjamin Netanyahu was eager to show his toughness in the face of renewed rocket attacks by Hamas but did not want a prolonged conflict that would be sure to increase international condemnation of his government as the death toll mounted. But probably the single biggest factor in Mr Netanyahu's decision to go on the offensive was the acquisition by Hamas of medium- and long-range rockets _ which apparently are manufactured locally with technology transferred from Iran.

What seems to be left out of the Middle East dynamic for now is renewing negotiations, or at least efforts to begin negotiations, for a two-state solution, which holds the only real hope for a lasting peace. Now that Hamas has much greater potential to unleash harm inside of Israel, we can expect the game to get even more deadly unless there is a genuine dialogue for peace. Such a dialogue must begin with an easing of the crushing Israeli blockade on Gaza as stipulated in Wednesday's ceasefire agreement.