The latest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians seems depressingly familiar: rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, a swift retaliation with the killing of a high-profile target, and an escalation. But this may not be another tit-for-tat blitz of violence and rhetoric that will rage, simmer and die down before being repeated again in a few years. It has erupted in uncertain times, with an election looming in Israel, the Arab world searching for direction after uprisings against autocrats and dictators, a civil war in Syria and tensions between Israel and Iran. To stop it from spinning out of control, tentative regional and international efforts to end the bloodshed have to quickly combine into a robust push for a ceasefire.
Military force will never resolve the troubles between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet Hamas, the Islamist group in charge in Gaza that is an offshoot of Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood, has believed that by firing rockets into Israel, it can achieve its aim of obliterating the Jewish state. Israel, in turn, puts faith in retaliatory force and its killing of Hamas' military leader Ahmed Jaabari and dozens of civilians in air strikes since Wednesday is in keeping with that thinking. An Israeli ground invasion of Gaza or more Hamas missile strikes on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will result only in greater grief and hatred, not a solution.
Egypt sent its prime minister to Gaza on Friday as a token gesture, and there have been the usual calls for a truce from the UN, Arab League, the US, Britain and France. US President Barack Obama, visiting Southeast Asia, phoned Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Egypt's president Mohammed Mursi, and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon will go to the Middle East this week. Individual attempts to end the unrest will have limited impact, though; there has to be sustained, united effort to pull apart the combatants.
The recently elected Mursi and just-returned Obama are best placed to spearhead events. Their influence over Arabs and Israelis respectively provides a moment of opportunity. It has to be seized upon before the situation deteriorates.