by RAY FLEMING
ONE way of judging the seriousness of the situation in Gaza is to note that the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has supported proposals for a UN peacekeeping force to keep the Hamas and Fatah militants apart.

Israel, with help from the United States, has spent most of its existence trying to avoid a UN presence in the area, except for humanitarian activities. So Mr Olmert must be very worried, and with good reason. In a worst case scenario the Gaza Strip would become a new Islamist mini-state between Israel and Egypt, on the fault line of the Western world, and a potential breeding ground for terrorists.

It is hard for Westerners to understand fully the enmity between Hamas and Fatah Palestinians, which has deep roots. However the current outbreak of violence has a recent cause in which the West is complicit. In January last year Hamas defeated Fatah in an election which all observers agreed was free and fair.

Instead of welcoming this evidence of democracy in action in the Middle East, the West and Israel said that they could not do business with Hamas until it revoked its long-standing constitutional opposition to the existence of Israel. When Hamas declined to do so, the West and Israel cut off the financial aid on which the Palestinians have depended for many years. Having thus been told that the path of democracy would avail them little, Hamas has not surprisingly turned to a more direct form of action.

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