Machinations over a Gaza ceasefire

Jul 15, 2014 | Sharyn Mittelman

Machinations over a Gaza ceasefire

As the fighting between Israel and Gaza continues into the seventh day, rockets continued to target Israel – now reaching Eilat with five people injured – and Israeli air strikes continued on Hamas in Gaza.

There are increasing discussions of a ceasefire and what it might look like. Below, I canvass the major issues and competing interests involved in trying to reach one.

On Saturday, the UN Security Council issued a unanimous statement calling for “de-escalation of the situation, restoration of calm, and reinstitution of the November 2012 ceasefire.” This relatively bland and neutral statement was reportedly drafted by Jordan and the US and was heavily criticised by Saudi Arabia – which doubtless hoped for something more one-sidedly blaming Israel for the situation.

Now a ceasefire proposal brokered by Egypt is on the table and has been supported by both the US and Arab League. The Arab foreign ministers said in a statement that they “demand all parties concerned accept the Egyptian initiative” and commit to its terms.

Israel has accepted the cease-fire proposal, but the proposal has been rejected by the armed wing of Hamas.  Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades said in a statement:

“No official or unofficial side has approached us about the ceasefire talked about in the media… (but) if the contents of this proposal are true, it is a surrender and we reject it outright,” adding, “Our battle with the enemy will intensify.”

The reported terms of the proposal, published by Egyptian media require that:

1. Israel stops all its hostilities against the Gaza Strip in land, sea and air, committing not to launch a land strike or target civilians.

2. All Gaza factions commit to stopping all hostilities against Israel in land, sea, air and underground and targeting Israeli civilians.

3. Border crossings will be opened (not specifying where, likely with Egypt), allowing for people and commodities to move freely.

According to reports, the idea was a de-escalation of violence from 9am and a truce 12 hours later. Following the cease-fire, talks about opening crossings between Gaza and Israel to allow more goods into Gaza would take place in Cairo. Cease-fire talks would then be held by Egypt separately with both Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian factions.

Hamas was reportedly reluctant to accept the ceasefire because it does not meet its core demands, as Avi Issacharoff writes in the Times of Israel:

“This is the darkest hour for the Hamas leadership in Gaza and abroad. If they accept the Egyptian proposal, they will be perceived as having been heavily defeated in the latest round of conflict with Israel; a defeat that is close to a humiliation.
That’s because the conditions in the Egyptian proposal do not include any of the demands that Hamas has been repeating day and night in the last few days. As reported in the Egyptian media, there is no mention in the proposal of Hamas’s oft-repeated demand for the release of the dozens of its operatives, freed in the 2011 Shalit deal, who were rearrested in recent weeks by Israeli forces in the West Bank in the wake of the murders of the three Israeli teenagers. There is also no concrete commitment regarding the opening of the Rafah border crossing or the payments of the salaries of Hamas’s 40,000 clerks in Gaza. And there is no mention whatsoever of the situation in the West Bank. All these demands were raised by the Hamas military wing two days after Israel began Operation Protective Edge, and repeated interminably ever since.

Yes, there is some language providing for the opening of the border crossings, and an easing of movement of people and goods via those crossings as permitted by the security situation. But that language is almost a direct repetition of the November 2012 ceasefire terms that brought Operation Pillar of Defense to a close. Time and again, Hamas’s leaders have been stressing in recent days that ‘there will be no return to the 2012 ceasefire terms.’…

Hamas’s problem is that if it rejects the Egyptian proposal it will find itself unprecedentedly isolated in the international community and the Arab world. Cairo will accuse it of torpedoing the opportunity for calm, and Jerusalem will have the legitimacy to mount a ground offensive into Gaza.”

Egypt was able to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012. But the situation has changed substantively since then. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, which had close links with Hamas, has been ousted, and the new Egyptian government under President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as well as Hamas, and increased security cooperation with Israel.

As a result Hamas may be less inclined to support a ceasefire unless it has already concluded that the fighting is overly damaging to it, while Cairo will have very little ability to influence this calculation. Hamas’ reason for the escalation in rocket attacks remains unclear, but some speculate it was aimed at increasing its funding from donors, and its popularity as the real ‘resistance against Israel’, as its popularity has been diminishing.

The major tension in the ceasefire calculation will be between Hamas’ efforts to gain concrete concessions for stopping the rocket fire that will allow it to proclaim a victory, and Israel’s desire to deny it such concessions, which will naturally tend to provide an incentive for Hamas to return to firing rockets in another year or two in order to gain concessions.

Meanwhile, senior Palestinian officials reportedly told the Times of Israel that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is requesting that a ceasefire agreement provide not only for the cessation of hostilities, but also include measures that would restart the peace process and increase PA authority in Gaza. Elhanan Miller and Avi Issacharoff explain the PA proposal:

“Aside from convening an international summit that would include representatives from the PA, Israel, Arab states and other actors, the Palestinian proposal includes a number of other provisions: transferring authority over the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to the PA (specifically President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential guard); deploying PA forces along the Philadelphi Route on the border between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula (from which Israel withdrew in September 2005, and which has since been under the control of the Egyptian army); releasing those Hamas members (approximately 50) who were re-arrested by Israeli security forces in recent weeks after being released in the 2011 prisoner exchange deal to free kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit; and increasing Palestinian control of the Erez Crossing between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip… According to the same Palestinian sources, Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has advocated for some of these proposals. Livni has also facilitated communication between Israel and those involved in brokering a ceasefire, which she believes must include both the neutralization of Hamas’s ability to manufacture and obtain missiles and rockets, and relaxing restrictions along Gaza’s borders in order to strengthen Abbas’s presence.”

The truth is the current Gaza conflict has left the PA on the sidelines to a great extent. These proposals look like an attempt to re-assert its relevance.

According to reports, Abbas has hinted that if the proposal is not accepted, the PA will carry out a diplomatic campaign at UN institutions aimed at increasing international pressure on Israel to stop its operation in Gaza. However, the merits of a campaign to take Israel to the International Criminal Court have been criticised from a surprising source – Palestinian representative to the UN Human Rights Council Ambassador Ibrahim Kraishi.

Speaking to PA TV on July 9 regarding the possible risks involved if Palestinians leaders ask to join the International Criminal Court, Ambassador Kraishi said the “Palestinian weakness” in terms of international law is the indiscriminate firing of rockets at Israel. According to MEMRI, Kraishi said:

“The missiles that are now being launched against Israel, each and every missile constitutes a crime against humanity, whether it hits or misses, because it is directed at civilian targets”.

The Ambassador noted that, in contrast, Israel’s actions follow legal procedures, because the IDF warns Gazan civilians to leave sites and areas before they are bombed: “Many of our people in Gaza appeared on TV and said that the Israelis warned them to evacuate their homes before the bombardment. In such a case, if someone is killed, the law considers it a mistake rather than an intentional killing because [the Israelis] followed the legal procedures.”

Kraishi added, “As for the missiles launched from our side, we never warn anyone about where these missiles are about to fall or about the operations we carry out”.

Sharyn Mittelman




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