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Originally published Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 4:59 PM

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Steps Obama should take to avoid a wider war in the Middle East

To find peace in the Middle East, the Obama administration needs to cooperate with the European Union to frame a four-stage solution embedded in international law.

Special to The Times

PRESIDENT Obama's inaugural speech, with its language about peace and solidarity, is an unfulfilled pledge for Fatima and Frida, Palestinian and Jewish girls on the border between Israel and Gaza. They lost their homes and have been traumatized by thousands of missiles fired on Israel by the Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas], and subsequent heavy Israeli bombardments and invasion of Gaza, which resulted in about 1,300 Palestinian casualties.

The current cease-fire may be very temporary and could escalate into a greater war. Two stories, viewed very differently by the two sides, have led to escalated hostilities. One is Israel's post-1967 colonization of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank. The second is Palestinian violence, including suicide bombings and missile attacks targeted against innocent civilians, which has only generated more repression of the Palestinians. Tragically, both sides are committing war crimes that inflict damage on innocent civilians.

Gaza was settled in 1948 by 150,000 Palestinian refugees, some escaping the horrors of war and others expelled by the Israeli military in the war for Israeli independence in 1948, subsequent to the Palestinian rejection of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan.

The Egyptians controlled Gaza until the 1967 War, but they have neglected it, preserving it as a refugee camp. After 1967, Israel imposed a military occupation and destroyed Gaza's public institutions, which opposed Israeli control.

Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was intended to reduce the number of Palestinians under its governance, disconnecting Gaza from the West Bank and facilitating negotiation with the Palestinian authority on a two-state solution. Gaza remained besieged and its autonomy was limited by Israel's army and navy.

Hamas was established in 1987 as a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim movement. It gained electoral majority in the Palestinian parliamentarian elections in 2006 while calling for a war of Jihad aimed at Israel's destruction. In 2007, Hamas took control over Gaza in a military revolt and subsequently was outlawed by the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas leaders did mention several times a possible recognition of Israel at its pre-1967 borders. But such proposals were never adopted by any of Hamas' formal institutions. They were mentioned only as part of having a cease-fire for perhaps a decade — and only after Israel accepted all the Palestinian demands. Hamas still rejects peace with a Jewish state in any form, even in its 1947 borders,

The two stories of Gaza's recent history are not resolvable without international intervention that guarantees the safety and peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians. It must include a humanitarian provision for improving living conditions in Gaza; internationalization of the holy places in east Jerusalem based on U.N. resolution 181 from 1947; full peace along the 1967 borders; and publicly addressing the 1948 refugees issue.

The Obama administration needs to cooperate with the European Union to frame a four-stage solution embedded in international law.

First, the solution must enforce a peace treaty between Syria and Israel, which includes Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Second, with the help of moderate Arab Muslim states — such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — Israel and the Palestinians must frame a peace accord based on two states and recognition of a need to compensate the 1948 refugees.

Third, Israel and Iran must establish a mutual regime of nuclear nonproliferation.

Finally, Gaza's economic prosperity must be safeguarded. If this road not taken, the next general war in the Middle East may not be avoided.

Gad Barzilai is professor of international studies, law and political science in the Jackson School of International Studies and Law, Societies and Justice at the University of Washington.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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