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Mediating between the mediators in Gaza

Following Israel’s decision to send in ground troops, civilian casualties in Gaza are mounting by the hour

Nathalie Tocci

Published: Updated:

Gaza has descended again into a tragic spiral of violence. Following Israel’s decision to send in ground troops, civilian casualties in Gaza are mounting by the hour. Missiles continue to be launched indiscriminately towards Israeli towns, though the Iron Dome system intercepts more than 90% of them. The conflagration has already deteriorated well beyond that of 2012. I believe it is dangerously oscillating between the 2006 invasion of Lebanon and the 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza.

There is a new regional dimension to the conflict revolving around the confrontation between Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas. This, I believe, has generated a dangerous mediation vacuum in the region. The direct parties to the conflict are locked in a logic of escalation. Israel’s objectives have not been clearly spelled out and are perceived to range from the weakening of Hamas’s military capabilities to the destruction of the movement altogether.

No longer a conflict only between Israel and Hamas, I believe [the escalation] has become a wider confrontation for regional influence

Nathalie Tocci

It could be that some would welcome the latter goal, even if it entails the temporary territorial reoccupation of Gaza. I feel that many across Israel’s political spectrum would resist this, fearing that the ensuing ungovernability of the territory would bring about far more dangerous actors at its helm. It is extremely unlikely that when there is a ceasefire, the Palestinian Authority will graciously reenter Gaza and be met by cheering Palestinian crowds.

Netanyahu's concerns

Be that as it may, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - with a loosening grip over his own party, and in a fragile coalition government - appears to be primarily concerned about not being overtaken by the right from within and outside his own cabinet. While Israel’s ultimate objectives remain unclear, the determination to pursue a wide-ranging operation in Gaza is crystal clear it seems.

As civilian casualties mount in Gaza, I believe that Hamas feels it cannot simply accept “quiet for quiet” and rewind to the 2012 ceasefire agreement, which Israel did not implement. In light of this, Hamas has set three key demands for a ceasefire: the reopening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt, the payment of Gaza employees, and the release of prisoners, including those re-arrested in the last month. These conditions are viewed as critical to the movement’s material survival and political legitimacy.

In this context, Egypt proposed a plan for an immediate ceasefire followed by negotiations on a wide range of issues, including the reopening of all border crossings with Gaza. Israel immediately accepted the plan, but Hamas rejected it. Hours later, Israel’s ground operation began. The PA, the Arab League (with the partial exception of a perceivably lackluster response from Qatar), the United States and the European Union endorsed the plan, reprimanding Hamas for its rejection.

Hamas objected to it because it was not consulted by Cairo, and because the plan did not call for immediate agreement on any of its conditions. Soon after, it declared its willingness to agree a 10-year truce with Israel provided that a wider range of conditions be met, including farming, fishing and movement rights, and the broader rehabilitation and reconstruction of Gaza.
At face value, it seems the Egyptian proposal is watertight. With civilian casualties rising, it is difficult to support anything other than an immediate ceasefire. Yet the absence of any condition as part of the deal, coupled with the losses already incurred, explain Hamas’ rejection.

Were it to accept an unconditional ceasefire, there is little guarantee that its three principal enemies would provide the three things it desperately needs: salary payments by the PA facilitated by the international community; the reopening of Rafah by Egypt; and the release of prisoners by Israel.

Convergence of interests

I beleive that what can be perceived as a convergence of interests between Egypt, Israel, and to a lesser extent the PA reveals why Cairo, while remaining a crucial stakeholder in the conflict and its resolution, cannot alone act as a credible mediator on Gaza.

The mediation vacuum has not gone unnoticed. Turkey and Qatar have presented themselves as key interlocutors in light of the Egypt-Hamas standoff. Ankara and Doha represent the opposite of the Egyptian-Israeli-PA dynamic, it seems. Just as I believe Egypt has de facto acted as a spokesperson for Israel’s demands for quiet for quiet, it seems, in my view, that Turkey and Qatar have espoused Hamas’ conditions.

In other words, the current conflict in Gaza is complicated by its regional overlay. No longer a conflict only between Israel and Hamas, I believe it has become a wider confrontation for regional influence between Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, among others. While presumably acting as mediators, regional powers have entered the dynamic of the conflict itself, leaving behind a huge mediation vacuum.

Mediating the current conflict requires a diagnosis of the minimum benchmarks that Hamas and Israel could reasonably be expected to accept as part of a ceasefire plan. It is highly unlikely that Israel would concede to an immediate release of prisoners, given its prior refusal to do so to help U.S.-mediated talks with the PA.

Equally unlikely, in my opinion, is Egypt opening the Rafah crossing unless this is part of the reopening of all border crossings with Gaza. Aside from the (probably overblown) security considerations regarding the Sinai, I believe that Cairo is against any measure that would deepen its integration with Gaza while weakening the latter’s ties with Israel and the West Bank.

The only leeway appears to revolve around salary payments to Gaza employees. Qatar has offered the necessary funds, but the PA says if it were to deliver the payments it would have no guarantee that the banks would channel funds without being sanctioned by Washington. A solution could be found in the proposal by U.N. envoy Robert Serry to channel the Qatari funds to the employees via the United Nations.

I postulate that this would begin to resolve the immediate crisis in Gaza, while assuring that the funds are not directed to Hamas militants. It would also represent a critical step to ensuring the survival of the Palestinian consensus government, by allowing the reintegration of civilian employees in Gaza and the West Bank.

It could also be a crucial step in broader intra-Palestinian reconciliation, possibly representing a prelude to the more arduous task of the reintegration of militias, the return of the PA to Gaza, and the full reopening of Rafah under a reactivated EU border assistance mission.

Given the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, finding an immediate way out is of the essence. Yet there must be a deeper resolution of the conflict, not simply a temporary quiet for quiet. Believing that the crisis can be resolved by weakening or destroying Hamas, and replacing it with a docile PA, is dangerously naïve. The only way to genuinely stop the cycle of violence is a political process of intra-Palestinian reconciliation and an end to the collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population.

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Nathalie Tocci is Deputy Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali and Editor of The International Spectator.

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