It’s always an error to deal with Middle East events in narrow compartments. Local mediation may suspend the present Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Gaza. But only renewed, concerted diplomacy by the US, Europe, the Arab states, and Israel to reach a comprehensive Middle East peace accord will block new crises.

The current escalation of attacks, which began with Palestinians firing rockets from northern Gaza into Israel and Israel retaliating by aiming artillery fire at the presumed sources of that rocket fire, threatens to further unravel the already stalled progress toward peace in the region. Compounding the situation, on June 25, Palestinian militants kidnapped Israeli army Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who unlike predecessors is not a retired military man and who backed withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza a year ago, is hanging tough. To try to compel Shalit’s safe return, he has ordered Israeli land, sea, and air forces to largely knock out electricity, water, roads, food, and fuel supplies for Gaza’s suffering 1.4 million civilians.

Olmert’s intention to wreck Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) became obvious with the ensuing Israeli detention of scores of West Bank PA cabinet ministers and parliamentarians, and aerial assaults to destroy their homes, offices, and infrastructure in Gaza.

Israel and the West refuse to deal with the Hamas-controlled PA and have cut off funds because the Hamas charter refuses to recognise Israel or renounce violence in fighting for a single Islamic state to replace it.

Only after urgent calls by the UN and Western governments did Israel briefly interrupt its blockade at one Gaza border crossing on July 1 to admit some humanitarian supplies. Decisive US involvement will be inevitable to prevent the highly combustible Israeli-Hamas warfare from inflaming the entire region.

In addition to the escalation in Gaza, Israel’s air force buzzed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s residence — reportedly to intimidate Syria into giving up extremist Hamas leaders such as Khaled Mashal. And John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, has called on the Syrian government to arrest Mashal. But these moves have only stiffened resistance and increased alarm in the Muslim world. The US now urgently needs to exercise the same sustained, direct influence that in the late 1980s brought the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and the direct US-PLO contacts leading to the peace agreements in Oslo and Washington in 1993. These agreements and the subsequent “road map” for peace collapsed, arguably partly because of neglect by a US influenced by extremist Israeli policies.

The Bush administration shows some understanding of these factors. The US should now take a bold lead to facilitate humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Palestinian people. And they should provide strong, publicly visible support to Islamic and Arab moderate elements in the present crisis. — The Christian Science Monitor