Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Tragedy becomes Gaza

How many more lives must be lost before all protagonists in Gaza accept the obvious — that this a lose-lose war, writes Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The stepped up diplomacy that this week brought the UN Secretary General, the US Secretary of State and a gaggle of European foreign ministers to the Middle East has so far failed to secure an end to the war on Gaza. It has, however, brought pressure on all concerned to inch closer towards a deal that could end the Israeli assault on Gaza that is in its third week and has resulted in the deaths of over 600 Palestinians, many of them women, children and the old, and halt the firing of rockets at Israeli targets.

Diplomats speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, almost all agreed the humanitarian cost on the Palestinian side was too high, and the political costs for Israel were becoming untenable.

The international community, Washington included, is increasingly unhappy with the growing civilian casualties. Already 4,00 Palestinians are wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu fears a backlash in domestic public opinion as he is held responsible for causalities in the Israeli army, which according to Israeli official statements now number 28 killed and one captured as a hostage. The escalation comes as Israel pursues a war that will not halt the Palestinian factions’ ability to fire rockets against Israel as he promised. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is finding continued bloodshed in Gaza increasingly untenable.

Egypt, too, fears the fallout from the conflict continuing. Cairo, Egyptian officials agree, does not want to find itself in a situation in which it is forced to expand its humanitarian accommodation beyond a certain level. In the wake of the attack that killed more than 20 conscripts on Egypt’s south-western borders it worries a continuing war in the east could be unsettling for a new regime that has committed itself to imposing stability at home.

Cairo is also concerned about its ability to influence political and military developments in its immediate backyard at a time when it is trying to reassert its regional role.  

Egypt and its Gulf partners, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are less concerned about any developing Qatari-Turkish axis vis-a-vis developments in Gaza than the emergence of an alliance of resistance movements. Regional and international intelligence alarms have been sounding ever louder over contacts and coordination between Hamas, Jihad and Hizbullah. Concern now extends beyond the assumed borders of a Sunni-Shia confrontation, especially given ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) control over swathes of Iraq and close to one third of Syria.

On Tuesday evening the Saudi monarch was scheduled to recive in Riyadh the Emir of Qatar for talks on Gaza.

The way the continued Israeli war on Gaza has strengthened rather than weakened military resistance movements has been high on the agenda of this week’s diplomatic flurry.

US President Barack Obama, say Washington-based Arab diplomats, already concerned over the Democratic Party’s chances in mid-term Congressional elections, is unwilling to go to the polls with a foreign policy failure in the Middle East hanging over his party.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who enjoy some support from Iran, Turkey and Qatar and who have exhibited a degree of political poise, are now, says a source close to the recent talks conducted by their leaders in Doha and Kuwait, ready to see a settlement.

Nor, say sources, are Hamas and Islamic Jihad determined to fully exclude the Egyptian initiative mooted at the beginning of the second week of the Israeli war on Gaza.

“They want it improved, and the Egyptians after much give and take are willing to show openness,” said a Cairo-based Western diplomat.

Egypt is officially insisting that it will not change its initiative. Egyptian officials, however, seem prone to a dose of  political realism that would allow for the fine-tuning of the language of the initiative, based on regional and international consultations, that couples the ceasefire with arrangements to ease the siege that Israel has imposed since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.

“I think we are getting closer to the point where everyone shows openness and a willingness to make compromises one way or the other,” says an Egyptian diplomat who has taken part in most of the recent talks.

The lines of compromise are becoming obvious. Israel will have to accept that it cannot neutralise the military capacity of  Palestinian resistance factions but could secure a long term suspension of these capacities as part of a security package that would make it extremely difficult for these capacities to be strengthened. Hamas would have to accept that a full lift of the siege is not on the cards and the Rafah crossing will not be operated on the basis of a bilateral deal between Hamas and Egypt, away from any Palestinian Authority presence and clear international supervision.

“The ceilings are starting to come down,” suggests the Egyptian diplomat. The bottom line is that the humanitarian situation and “long term” economic prospects will be better for Gazans and that Israel will be reassured about its security concerns, also on “long-term basis”.

“I cannot qualify what exactly constitutes the long term. It all depends on whether or not we have a political process to end the Palestinian dispute and maybe to start political talks between Palestinians and Israelis. We are looking for a deal that will prevent a new conflict starting in a year or two or three.”

Cairo wants — and it is winning support for its position — to be the ultimate broker of any deal and to have it signed independently by officials from Israel and Hamas and the rest of the Palestinian factions.   

This could be achieved, say Egyptian officials, with sufficient “flexibility on the side” of Egypt to allow the ceasefire deal to be immediately “coupled to Egyptian-Palestinian understandings on the situation in Gaza.

Yet it remains unclear, despite US support, whether this scheme will gather momentum. Then remains a chance – far from small — that Egypt will not be the only broker of any ceasefire. A text could be offered, following ongoing diplomatic efforts, for the agreement of both Israel and the Palestinian factions at an international forum, the UN being the obvious choice.

“Mahmoud Abbas is intensifying his talks with the Palestinian factions and with regional and international players. We are hoping to see moves towards a ceasefire in a few days,” said the same Egyptian diplomatic source. On Tuesday evening Abbas called on all Palestinian factions to show a sense of responsibility to help end the tragedy in Gaza.

Cairo-based Western diplomats seem to agree that it is a matter of three days to a week before some deal is concluded.

“The humanitarian cost of this war is getting too high and the regional situation is already very tense. This conflict has to be stopped. The right of Israel to defend itself is recognised but this does not mean that the world can turn a blind eye to the killing of civilians every day,” said one Cairo-based European ambassador.

In Israel on Tuesday, following talks with Netanyahu, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that no country in the world would allow rockets to fall on its cities, but also called on Israel to exercise self-restraint. Later in the day, several international airliners cancelled their flights to Israel.

“The Israelis have been over and over again during the past couple of days hearing clear messages on the need to spare civilians and to observe international law and Hamas has also been told in no uncertain terms by its regional allies that this conflict cannot go on for much longer. Let us hope that we see an end to this before the Muslim World celebrates its feast,” said the European ambassador.

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