Cease fire first, followed by an open Rafah gate

The Middle East has altered significantly since Israel's last assault in 2008 - changed in ways that are still unclear and still unfolding.

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For a fifth day, Israel and Hamas traded fire yesterday, adding to the collective carnage on both sides of the border. Israel assaulted the Strip from the sea, killing six Palestinians, and Hamas lobbed rockets towards the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

But there was also something previous days hadn't turned up: universal talk of a cease fire. Speaking yesterday, one Palestinian official told news agencies that "it is possible understandings will be reached today or tomorrow". The Egyptian side, which is negotiating with leaders of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Strip, also expressed confidence hostilities were running their course.

That confidence seems overstated, even naive, given how defiant Israel's belligerent prime minister remains, still threatening to "significantly expand" operations. Considering that the US president has backed Israel's assault, it seems unlikely any mediation could have more than a moral impact. Israel has been planning a second invasion of Gaza for years, despite keeping the territory under near total siege.

But step back and it is clear how momentous this subtle change in regional diplomacy is. The Middle East has altered significantly since Israel's last assault in 2008 - changed in ways that are still unclear and still unfolding. But with a democratic Egypt and an increasingly assertive Turkey, plus a growing awareness of the immorality of Israel's siege, the political tide is, if not turning, at least becoming harder to swim against.

There is, unfortunately, no guarantee that Egypt's mediation efforts will be fruitful. Yet this is one piece of this puzzle Egypt can unilaterally solve - by taking direct action to help end Gazans' suffering.

The foremost step for Egypt is making permanent what Egypt has already done intermittently: opening the Rafah crossing with Gaza 24 hours a day. Previously there have been varying restrictions of the free movement of Palestinians and traffic into and out of the Strip. Under the Mubarak regime, Israel could count on the crossing remaining closed.

Rafah represents a vital lifeline for Gazans. The siege has choked off not only food and medicines, but also the raw materials for rebuilding the devastation. Reopening Rafah would go some way to alleviating the daily difficulties that Palestinians in the territory face. It would also, in time, helps Gazans secure material to rebuild shattered lives.

The long-term solution is to end the siege of Gaza. But, as this latest round of air strikes shows, Hamas has no partner for dialogue in Israel. If Egypt cannot end the siege of Gaza, it can at least mitigate the worst of its horrors.