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A war in search of a ceasefire mediator

International mediators are on a mission to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The skies of Israel and Palestine are buzzing not only with fighter aircraft, rockets and drones, but also with airplanes carrying potential diplomatic mediators on board from near and afar. They are on a mission to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and bring this deadly bout of violence to a halt. For a brief moment last Tuesday, it seemed that an Egyptian proposal, reached without consulting Hamas, would end this current round of bloodshed, but it was rejected outright by Hamas.

This begs the question as to why an organisation, which is militarily visibly inferior and has been on the receiving end of sustained air, naval and artillery bombardments, would reject at least a temporary respite. The answer is at least twofold.

First, the entire assumption that in such an asymmetric conflict the party which seems weaker would accept unconditionally any terms of a ceasefire, is false. Secondly, the multiplicity of potential brokers with conflicting interests complicates and prolongs the war rather than hastens a truce to the fighting.

I believe that both sides abhorrently see harming civilians very cavalierly, as legitimate collateral damage on the route to achieving their political or security interests

Yossi Mekelberg

The unfortunate consequence of this is that a ground invasion of Gaza by Israel, which seemed to be highly unlikely at the beginning of this military operations, became a deadly reality with dire consequences. Both sides recognise that an end to violence is in their best interest, but the agreement for that needs to meet at least the minimum requirements both sides’ and have the right timing. Both leaderships see themselves obliged to demonstrate to their societies that the sacrifices made in this conflict were worthwhile. The higher the death toll and destruction, the higher the demand for demonstrable political achievements. Though this formula does not necessarily work in reality.

Endure another assault

The Palestinian residents in Gaza endure another assault by Israeli military forces, though the vast majority of them have nothing to do with any attacks on Israel. The Israeli government and its military chiefs might claim that they do not deliberately target civilians, but as has always been the case in the past, I do not think that harming civilians would not stop them from pursuing their military targets. Reports from Gaza suggest that around 70 per cent of the more than 600 hundred Palestinian casualties in the last few weeks have been civilians, including children. The Israelis themselves have recently been living under a constant barrage of rockets. Their lives are spared only due to a very high level of interception by the Iron Dome air defence system. The indiscriminate nature of the rockets launched by Hamas, and the attempts by armed militants to infiltrate Israel through tunnels and kill both Israeli soldiers and civilians, could have led to even worse retaliation from Israel, had they been successful.

I believe that both sides abhorrently see harming civilians very cavalierly, as legitimate collateral damage on the route to achieving their political or security interests. Israel’s argument that it does this in the name of securing the safety of its citizens, disingenuously blaming Hamas for the plight of the Palestinians, holds little or no water at all. It entirely ignores her responsibility to adhere to international law and conventions. Especially in times of war, where the lives of many people are at risk, it has to uphold standards of behaviour suited to a country claiming to be a liberal democracy.

Extinguishing the fire between Hamas and Israel is more complicated than ever and is increasingly more difficult as the number of casualties is mounting. Last’s week failure on the part of Egypt to reach a truce between the two belligerent sides highlighted the different perceptions and expectations of the war’s outcome by both sides. The assumption was that after more than a week of sustained Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Hamas’ leadership would be begging for respite and would agree unconditionally to any agreement. This proved to be a false assumption and Hamas rejected a ceasefire, which was accepted, though I believe grudgingly, by the Israeli cabinet. In my view, Hamas declined it partly because it was suggested by Egypt, but mainly because the proposed terms of the agreement included not a single one of Hamas’ demands for a ceasefire. This would have resulted in the organisation’s humiliation and a huge risk of losing any credibility among its constituency. The movement’s existence is defined by its resistance of Israel, thus continuing the war despite heavy losses was preferable to accepting an agreement which might be seen as capitulating to Israeli and Egyptian demands. I believe that Hamas’ leadership is very suspicious of Egyptian President Sisi and his government. After all, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the very movement that the new Egypt is trying to eliminate from its country’s political map.

Therefore, I believe that Hamas intensified its military efforts through the use of the tunnels to infiltrate Israel, knowing that this would escalate the situation and would lead Israel to retaliate with even harsher measures. The attempted infiltration by Palestinian militants into Israel became the tipping point in Israel’s decision to embark on a ground campaign, it seems.

Relative apathy

Unlike the relative apathy of the international community towards the conflict in Gaza in its early days, there is presently a frenzy of attempts to broker a ceasefire. Unfortunately, some of the proposed terms are unacceptable to at least one of the sides, if not both. There are also divisions between Hamas and the Islamic Jihad as to Egypt’s active involvement in brokering a ceasefire. I believe that Israel itself is reluctant for Qatar or Turkey to be too involved. Moreover, some of those who would like to assist in finding a solution are adverse to the participation of others either due to old grudges or competing interests.

This leaves the arena to Egypt and the United States as the most likely brokers of a ceasefire. The return of Secretary of State Kerry to the region and the urgent arrival of the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, reveals that the international community’s early reluctance to intervene has changed. It has been replaced by a sense of urgency to reach a ceasefire as the number of casualties increased and the situation threatened to get out of hand.

As this piece is being written, a ceasefire agreement has still not been reached. Both sides seem to believe, erroneously in my opinion, that a few more days of fighting will leave them in a better position when the hostilities come to an end. It seems Israel would like to deal Hamas a mortal blow by crippling its military infrastructure and destroying its tunnels, believing that this will bring an end to rocket attacks. Hamas on the other hand, in my view, would like to keep launching rockets until the very last minute before a ceasefire is declared, and inflict as many casualties as possible on Israel, and if possible even kidnap Israeli soldiers. They might succeed in causing damage to one another, but at the end of the day this, like any other round of vicious violence, will end without conclusive results. It leaves both societies to lick their wounds, while the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is left even worse than before and peace and reconciliation almost impossible.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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