Egypt’s ceasefire proposal – will it gain traction?

What is happening in Gaza today is, if we put it extremely cynically, a rather magnificent recruitment tool for those types of extremists

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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The Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory under Israeli occupation, has not abated. Rather, it has intensified. Initial signals from the Israeli prime minister that this would be a surgical, limited incursion were doubted from the moment the invasion began – and those reservations have proven to be well placed. At the best of times, any sort of invasion runs the risk of spilling dramatically out of control fairly quickly – such is the nature of war. And this is not the best of times. It is the Palestinian people of Gaza, this small strip of land under siege, that are paying the largest price for that disastrous decision. But the effects of it go beyond Gaza – including to its neighbor to the west, Egypt.

Egypt, traditionally, is the Arab power-broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict. On this occasion, it has not been successful in ceasing the bombardment of Gaza or the missile strikes from Hamas. Hamas and other Palestinian forces continue to fire rockets at Israeli targets, with little success partially owing to Israel’s defenses but mainly due to the poor capacity of the rockets. Israel’s bombardments and attacks from the sea, ground and air, continue undiminished, with human rights organizations, the United Nations, and various media outlets confirming that around 400 Palestinians are dead, most of whom are civilians.

The Palestinians of Gaza are being advised to flee but the operative question, of course, is to where? The Gaza Strip is one of the most congested places on the face of the planet and it is unclear where within it there is an established safe zone. Gaza is also under lockdown. The Israeli checkpoints are obviously closed to Palestinians and the other border with Egypt is closed, despite a number of Egyptian political parties and movements expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza, demanding that the Rafah border crossing be opened.

What is happening in Gaza today is, if we put it extremely cynically, a rather magnificent recruitment tool for those types of extremists

H.A. Hellyer

Gaza is, essentially, being held hostage by the conflicts between different parties in Palestine/Israel and the tensions within the region. Egypt has a ceasefire proposal that is essentially the same one that was negotiated successfully under the Mohammad Mursi government in 2012 - but that proposal has failed this time. There are reasons for that, not least with regards to the terms which return the Palestinians of Gaza to the status quo of pre-July 2014, which was hardly an enviable position given the difficulties that Gaza faced. Even before this latest round of hostilities, as the United Nations pointed out, Gaza was suffering under a crippling blockade that constituted “illegal collective punishment.” But foremost among the reasons for its lack of success is the inability, thus far, to engage directly and openly with one of the two key parties on the ground: Hamas.

There’s not much good to say about Hamas. Its strategies, tactics and actions are unbefitting of the Palestinian cause. That, however, is somewhat irrelevant when it comes to involving the movement in discussions that pertain to ending this current escalation of violence. Egypt knew this under Mubarak – even while it opposed Hamas on many levels. On this occasion, Hamas is not part of that discussion. It’s an object of discussion – not a full-fledged participant. That’s not simply problematic politically, but it is strategically nonsensical even if a unity government via a reconciliation deal, which actually strengthened non-Islamist forces in the Palestinian camp, had not actually been on the table (a reconciliation deal that Israel opposed). Regardless of all of that – there can be no ceasefire agreement implemented without Hamas, whether one likes it or not.

Egypt’s cease-fire proposal is gaining ground internationally; the momentum in that regard is certainly building. But where it matters the most, on the ground, there is little evidence of much change. The terms remain the same terms Hamas rejected – and it seems there is no direct discussion ensuing between Cairo and Hamas on how to get around it. Instead, there appear to be mediators between mediators – parties that are not simply sending messages between Israel and Hamas, but also between Hamas and Cairo. In the meantime, the bombardments in Gaza continue and the death toll rises approaching half a thousand Palestinians, most of whom are civilians.

Eventually, there is going to be a cessation of those bombardments. Everyone knows that. There cannot be an indefinite escalation of this conflict, and at some point, the firing will stop. But at that point, what is going to be the situation for Gaza – and what role will Egypt and others play in that regard?

Looking forward

Huge parts of Gaza will be in ruins. That will require massive reconstruction. Even if the funds are made available, as one might hope, from the international community, how will the materials arrive if Gaza remains under siege? It is unlikely Israel will be the entry point in that regard – will Egypt open not only Rafah, but the other checkpoints to Gaza in order to facilitate the flow of goods? Is that not in Egypt’s interest? Or is it in Egypt’s interest that there be a Palestinian population that resents Egypt for failing to provide a legal, secure alternative to the illegal tunnels, at a time when Palestinians will need all the humanitarian support they can get?

There will be not only death to account for – but trauma as well. As a United Nations official put it – if you are a Palestinian in Gaza, and at least six years old, you’ve just lived through your third war. Speaking on a personal note, I’m concerned tremendously about the trauma that friends of mine who are journalists reporting from Gaza are going to have to reckon with when the dust settles. They’re doing a tremendously important job, under fire, and they all deserve all of our support. But they, after all, get to leave – and it is not their families and homes that have been so deeply affected around them. What, then, of the Palestinian people of Gaza? What happens to a society that is so immensely brutalized through such catastrophes?

Knock-on effects and radical ideologies

That has an affect that goes far beyond Gaza’s borders. Concerns abound about the extremism of groups like Hamas – and groups far worse than Hamas, both within Gaza and elsewhere in the Arab region, including the likes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and others. It would be a mistake to ignore the very real threat of radical ideology – ideology is real, and a critical component of this scourge of extremism. But it thrives on political grievances – and what is happening in Gaza today is, if we put it extremely cynically, a rather magnificent recruitment tool for those types of extremists.

If the idea of this barrage is to cripple Hamas, as Israeli officials have promoted it, then it’s hard to see how in the medium to long term, that’s remotely likely. On the contrary – it’s far more probable that Hamas will swell its ranks, or increase appeal for even more radical groups in Gaza and elsewhere, including Egypt and further afield. That’s an effect that has to be measured not in months, but years.

Different analysts and commentators will argue about who is to blame in this crisis. They will try to apportion responsibility, allocate liability and assign culpability. There are certainly discussions to be had in that regard, and there should be many hard questions asked about this latest episode. But at least on one point, there ought to be consensus. That is that the situation that the Palestinian people of the Gaza Strip find themselves in is outrageous. It must be rectified – for their sakes, and for the region at large. We underestimate the need for that at our own peril.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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