Cementing peace in the Middle East

It's all about cement. The key to ending the current conflict between Israel and Gaza may lie, literally and figuratively, in the cement trucks that carry building materials across borders.

As cease-fire talks resume in Egypt, one of the big obstacles to a durable agreement will be the embargo (imposed by Israel and Egypt) that restricts goods from coming in and out of the Gaza Strip. A 7-year-old embargo is both a reflection of the lack of confidence between citizens of Gaza and Israel and a potential confidence-building measure depending on which side you are on.

Cement is one of those pesky "dual-use items" — materials for positive work, like building homes, roads and schools, or negative work like building tunnels, bunkers and fortified positions from which to fire rockets. So much depends on intent.

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Israel reenters a 72-hour truce in a deeply skeptical mood after failed cease-fires and clear evidence that extremists in Gaza built tunnels deep into Israel — some 32 of them — through which weapons and extremists travelled. Israelis argue that attempts to ease the embargo of Gaza in 2010 only led to renewed construction of passages to smuggle weapons. Hamas will argue that the blockade is illegal and has stifled any chance of economic progress for Palestinians living there. The debate leaves open the question of whether there is peaceful construction or deadly destruction in the days and weeks ahead.

Concrete has the potential to cause deadly danger — or fortify understandings. In this case, it may reinforce hardened positions. In any upcoming peace talks, "tunnel diplomacy" will be critical to break the impasse. Israel will be loath to allow imports and exports of products in and out of Gaza. The Palestinians will be loath to sign an agreement without an end to the embargo.

Therein lies the Catch-22 of peacebuilding. A key ingredient for civil society is economic freedom. A key factor in the eruption of conflict is unemployment. Unemployment in Gaza is close to 50 percent and the economy is in shambles. Palestinian officials plan to ask international donors for $6 billion to rebuild Gaza — some of which might end up used for internationally funded construction projects.

One way out of the Israel-Gaza cement gridlock is to let the Palestinian National Authority monitor the border. That would give the West Bank and its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, enormous authority — and responsibility. It could mean that people as well as products cross the border only after vigorous international inspection.

Solving the cement issue still leaves many problems unresolved, such as the rearming of Hamas, recognition of Israel, a real commitment on both sides not to fire rockets or missiles, and access for humanitarian assistance.

In the rubble that now describes Gaza, and in the resolve that now defines Israel, something must be built. It will be a slow process — brick by brick. After a month of an air and ground assault, patience on all sides is in short supply. What is required now is faith — and verification — to cement a peace.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. She teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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