A Gaza ceasefire is a step forward, not a solution
A permanent ceasefire seems to be hard to come by between Israel and Hamas in Gaza at this time
A permanent ceasefire seems to be hard to come by between Israel and Hamas in Gaza at this time. Agreeing to temporary ones, a few days of truce at a time, is a posturing and negotiations technique instead of representing any desire to stop the fighting. The occasional rocket firing by the Hamas and the almost customary Israeli airstrikes in retaliation over the last week, are merely symbolic rather than a real attempt to continue the tragic bloodshed. It may have been quite naïve to think that negotiations in Cairo would result in an instant long term ceasefire. As it happens, the gap between demands and expectations in the negotiations has thus far been way too wide to bridge in such a short time. Yet, the attacks on both sides seem to be less intense, representing two sides who understand that the only way forward is a political agreement, but still refuse to accept it. The result is the renewal of two successive ceasefires and the resumption of talks, which slowly and grudgingly move closer to an almost inevitable agreement.
Both sides can boast certain military achievements, but neither is in the position to bring the other side to cave to their demands. The leadership in Jerusalem and Gaza are also already under domestic and international scrutiny for the heavy cost of the war and for their callous behavior over the last few weeks. The appointment of an inquiry into potential violations of human rights by Israel in the recent conflict with Hamas by the U.N. Human Rights Council might also lead to an investigation of Hamas’ possible war crimes. President Obama in an interview with the New York Times encapsulated the nature of the resolution by asserting that there should be “no victor, no vanquished and [they should] work together.” The absence of this insight among the Israeli and Hamas leadership in the months and years leading to the war in Gaza resulted in the latest round of bloodshed and a delay in an agreement to stop it.
Dynamic of the battlefield
As is the case in most conflicts, the logic that led to the break out of hostilities was later overtaken by the dynamic of the battlefield itself and hence affects what the sides expect to gain in the negotiations to bring it to an end. Israel demands that Gaza will be completely demilitarized because Hamas demonstrated stronger offensive military capabilities than expected. It was able to accumulate a massive rocket arsenal despite the Israeli blockade and managed to fire thousands of them in the face of the wrath of the Israeli military force. Moreover, the exposure of Hamas tunnels leading into Israel reveals the intention to attack military and civilian targets inside Israel. Hence the Israeli government felt justified in launching a military campaign which ended up in a substantial reduction of Hamas’ military capabilities. The attack on the arsenals of rockets, the destruction of most of the tunnels and the targeting of Hamas personnel and the organization’s infrastructure will satisfy decision makers and generals in Israel, as much as the performance of the Iron Dome in defending the civilian population. They believe that they established a new level of deterrence combined with buying themselves breathing space while Hamas licks its wounds. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his military commanders could feel exonerated as their ratings in Israeli public opinion polls show that more than 80 percent of the population supports him and the military aims he apparently set.
Hamas’ leadership, despite heavy losses, managed to preserve its image as the only Palestinian movement which can maintain armed resistance against IsraelYossi Mekelberg
Hamas’ leadership on the other hand, despite its heavy losses, managed to preserve its image as the only Palestinian movement which can maintain the armed resistance against Israel in the face of obvious inferiority in terms of military capabilities. Hamas is measuring success in terms of its ability to keep firing rockets and mortars deep into Israeli territory, claiming the lives of dozens of Israeli soldiers and citizens, and doing it persistently under Israeli military pressure. It is an extension of the idea of Tzumud, adhering not only to the land but also to armed resistance until the status quo, which clearly favors Israel, is broken.
Last ditch attempts
The initial collapse of the ceasefire, and with it of the negotiations, was mainly a last ditch attempt at posturing from two sides who know that they have reached a military stalemate, but yet could not admit it publicly. Not surprisingly, they were quick to return to the negotiations table. Both are looking to declare gains considering the heavy price. How can Hamas explain the loss of so many lives in Gaza, the destruction of thousands of homes, schools, hospitals and infrastructure, and the psychological damage unless its negotiators return from Cairo with clear concessions from the Israelis? Israel will most probably not agree to sea or air ports at this moment in time, but under pressure from Egypt and the United States it might agree to allow for more leniency in the flow of goods and people to and from Gaza. Egypt itself can contribute to the end of the war by agreeing to a new arrangement for opening the Rafah crossing with strong involvement from the Palestinian Authority. No doubt the issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners remains highly contentious and difficult to resolve. Similarly, Israel might argue it had the upper hand in this war, but the evidence tells us something else. Notwithstanding three weeks of a massive IDF military campaign, Hamas militants were still able to fire rockets and mortars into Israeli territory. There is also no guarantee that all the tunnels have been destroyed. Israel was ready to put her soldiers in harm’s way, suffer a considerable loss of life and damage her international reputation, all this without evidence that it would deter Hamas from future military engagement.
Calls for BDS against Israel are more prevalent than ever and there is an increasing demand to indict Israeli officials (and to a lesser extent Hamas officials) with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Residents of southern Israel are already critical of the government for calling on them to return to their homes without ensuring the end of firing on their villages. Without guaranteeing a prolonged period without rocket attacks from Gaza, the Israeli government will endure growing criticism also from within Israel.
The current truce created further space for the negotiators in Cairo to come to their senses and do what they should have done long time ago. Violence breeds violence and there is no security for either if they do not deal with underlining reasons for the conflict. Imposing a collective punishment on 1.8 million people through blockading Gaza can only result in radicalization and empowerment of unsavory extreme forces, and does very little to ensure Israel’s long term security. Firing rockets at Israel and attempting to harm it can only lead to more massive military attacks by Israel, which are excessive and end in the suffering of many innocent Palestinian victims. The only alternative is a negotiated agreement which will ensure a long term ceasefire and removal of the blockade from Gaza as the first steps towards a more comprehensive deal. The question is whether these interlocutors are capable or interested in long term solutions.
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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