Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1206, (17-23 July 2014)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1206, (17-23 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Gaza: all options open

Dina Ezzat on the diplomatic scramble to avert yet more Palestinian casualties

Al-Ahram Weekly

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press Israeli attacks on Gaza had pushed the death toll to well over 200 and injuries to more than 1500, mostly among women and children.

Cairo is maintaining around the clock contacts with Israel, Palestinian factions and key regional and international players as even the beginnings of a ceasefire remain elusive.

“We had been hoping for a ceasefire that would last for 12 hours during which time we could call on both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians, to start sending delegations to negotiate a proper truce,” said an Egyptian official. “Hamas had let us down by shrugging off our initiative.”

On Monday afternoon, as Arab foreign ministers were making their way to Cairo for an extraordinary meeting of the Arab League, the Foreign Ministry issued an initiative aimed at “ending Israeli hostilities on Gaza and ending hostilities from Gaza” with the aim of later reaching a security package to put a truce in place which could be monitored.

The initiative, according to diplomatic sources that spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, followed consultations with Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the US.

The Palestinian factions, especially Hamas, have not reacted with any enthusiasm. Hamas leaders openly complained they were not consulted before the diplomatic offer was made in Cairo and promised no commitment. Israel had approved the initiative and suspended its attacks on Gaza but resumed the assault after six hours. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s office said “no truce is in the pipeline”.

Although Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman raised the possibility not only of continued air strikes and a ground operation but full reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, a reversal of Ariel Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal is dismissed by most diplomats.  

“Netanyahu has painted himself into a corner already and he knows from his advisors, both political and military, that the cost of a ground operation is very high. I don’t think he will reoccupy,” said one Western diplomat in Cairo.

If diplomats agree Lieberman’s threats are hollow, they also concur that short of reoccupation there is no guarantee to delivering what Netanyahu wants — dismantling Hamas’s capacity to launch rockets. And even that might not work. Quartet envoy Tony Blair has been advising Israel that neither reoccupation nor an extensive ground operation will secure Netanyahu’s goals.

Both Blair and US Secretary of State John Kerry have told Netanyahu that the only way forward is a truce that leads to easing the sufferings of the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Gaza under the Israeli siege first imposed in 2007 following the Hamas take over and the elimination of the PA. Blair has been discussing a package to help improve economic conditions in Gaza once a truce is in place with several concerned capitals.

Egyptian authorities say they were hoping both Hamas and Israel would immediately agree to their ceasefire initiative as a first step towards a more comprehensive arrangement that could secure better living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza. The repeated Hamas appeal for the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing — the only non-Israeli controlled outlet for Gaza — remains, however, firmly off the cards.

“It is out of the question. We already have a very serious security issue in Sinai and it is our assessment that allowing the Rafah crossing to operate permanently would lead to the infiltration of militants into Egypt,” said an Egyptian security source. He added that in attempting to sell the ceasefire initiative to Hamas Egypt had promised greater flexibility to the operation of the crossing.

At the Arab League foreign ministers meeting on Monday evening Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri managed to garner support for the Egyptian initiative but failed to win commitments from member states with the most influence on Hamas leaders to press them to be more flexible over their demands. These include an end to the Israeli siege on Gaza and the liberation of a long list of Palestinian prisoners. Some of these prisoners were released as part of the Gilad Shalit deal only to be rearrested by Israeli authorities within weeks.

The position in Cairo is that Hamas leaders are being “unrealistic” and “deliberately intransigent”.

“We are telling them that they are wasting Palestinian blood for no good reason. Israel is not going to remove the siege unless Hamas is out of the picture in Gaza and the PA is back. It could continue its air strikes for another week or two at the expense of innocent and already impoverished Palestinians,” the security source said. “We are trying to tell Hamas leaders that their best choice now is to agree to the ceasefire and to negotiate the terms of a more permanent truce later. We are not sure what they will do. All options are open because we are also not sure about what Israel is going to do and whether or not it will get a green light from the US for a ground operation in the light of Hamas’s rejection of the initiative”.

On Monday the White House, which had been supportive of the “right of Israel to defend itself”, had warned Israel against a ground operation. But as one Cairo-based Western diplomat explained that warning was made at a point where Kerry was supposed to arrive to the region, starting in Cairo on Tuesday dawn, to oversee the signing of a ceasefire and the beginning of security negotiations that Cairo had been planning to host independently with Palestinian and Israeli delegations.

Kerry, however, cancelled his visit at short notice. One reason, say Western and Egyptian diplomatic sources, was the failure of Palestinian factions to accept the Egyptian initiative. Some argue Kerry’s visit has in effect been postponed in anticipation of a tentative joint agreement between Israel and the Palestinian factions over the Egyptian initiative.

Neither Israel nor Hamas have a better option than the initiative offered by Cairo, says one Egyptian diplomatic source, “because there is no other diplomatic game in town”.

The Arab League has failed to offer an Arab alternative to the Egyptian offer. It also adopted no clear mechanisms to secure the implementation of demands put forward by Riyad Al-Maliki, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, on an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council, the UN Human Rights Council and Geneva Contracting Parties to force Israel to end its aggression on Gaza and to attend to the many humanitarian problems caused by the continued siege.

“We are going to see what can be done but let’s face it, there was a UN Security Council meeting on the situation in Gaza last week and the US blocked a resolution,” said an Arab League diplomat.

The US would not even accept a brief presidential statement from the council. After much give and take it finally agreed to a press statement that fell far short of placing responsibility to end the aggression at the doorstep of Israel.

Nor does the PA, despite mouthing the usual platitudes, seem keen to push for Israel to be dragged before the UN’s humanitarian offices.

This is the third Israeli assault on Gaza within five years: the first was in late 2008-early 2009 and the second in 2012.  It comes as talks between the PA and Israel are mired in stagnation, prompting the resignation earlier this month of Martin Indyk, the US Middle East Envoy, who despaired of moving the talks an inch forward.

It also comes at a time when Hamas’s relations with Cairo are at their lowest ebb. Egypt has accused the Islamic resistance movement of facilitating the transfer of militants and arms to Sinai to launch attacks against Egyptian military and police personnel, an accusation Hamas denies.

In its turn Hamas claims Egypt silently approves the aggression and drafted its ceasefire initiative to serve the political interests of Netanyahu who knows he cannot continue the air strikes indefinitely but is also aware a ground operation could result in serious causalities on the side of the Israeli army and leave the coalition he heads vulnerable.

So what hope does Hamas have in actually securing better terms in any ceasefire?

“Better conditions are only possible after a ceasefire and during the truce negotiations. The choice is there for Hamas leaders to make and it is up to them. We are waiting for their reply,” says the Weekly’s Egyptian diplomatic source.

As the Weekly went to press news reports were announcing that one Israeli settler was killed and another wounded by a Palestinian rocket. This development occured by the Erez crossing hours after Hamas had closed the Palestinian side of the crossing linking Gaza to Israel.

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