One step forward, two steps back in Gaza
Inch by inch, slowly but surely, Israel and Hamas were edging toward a cease-fire in Gaza; now, instead, they are charging toward another round of bloody warfare. In the recent negotiations there were signs of readiness on both sides to address some of the root causes of the conflict. However, in the unpredictable and irrational nature of relations between Israel and Hamas, there are push-pull forces, almost in equal measure, which means that despite violence not being in the long term interest of either party, it is still their default option, triggered by incidents at the tactical level and domestic political pressures.
The recent violence along the Gaza border took place just as a cease-fire agreement with a good chance of being maintained in the long term was painfully close, with both sides recognizing that neither could make the kind of military or political gains that would justify another costly war.
Yet both sides are, as in previous cases, falling victim to their own inflammatory rhetoric and inability to refrain from tit-for-tat military action. Whenever common sense dictates holding fire, they embark on what they believe is a show of military strength that will enhance their position at the negotiation table. It seldom does. In recent weeks, negotiations brokered by Egypt closed the gap, and then came a series of incidents such as Israeli troops firing at a Hamas facility in northern Gaza in response to what they believed was fire from the Strip aimed at Israeli security forces. The Israeli fire killed two Hamas members. From there things quickly escalated, Hamas fired rockets at Israel and Israel retaliated with air strikes. In a matter of days, even hours, both sides had abandoned the strategic objective of reducing tensions, laying the ground for a long-term cease-fire and improving living conditions in Gaza. All in all this was another piece of evidence, should anyone require it, of the extreme volatility of the situation.
The recent hostilities have been in complete contrast to the relative flexibility both sides have shown in negotiations.
This volatility has overridden another insight that these antagonists have come to share — that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza serves neither Israel nor Hamas. Cynically, both sides have hoped that the lion’s share of the blame for the misery inflicted on the Gazan people would be placed on the other’s shoulders. Israel’s leaders calculated that after Hamas’s 2006 election victory, the more hardship inflicted on the two million Palestinians who live there, the more likely they would be to rise against their own government and end Hamas’s rule. That calculation has proved baseless, and has resulted in the intolerable conditions that those in Gaza have to endure daily. Years of harsh blockade have created no meaningful challenge to Hamas’s rule. Moreover, the blockade imposed by Israel, and to a lesser extent by Egypt, has been exploited by Hamas to cover up its own shortcomings, violations of human rights and contributions to the protracted humanitarian crisis.
The corollary of all this is that the anger of the Gazan population, which for now is mainly directed at Israel, could at any point turn against Hamas too, and its leadership is well aware of it. A party elected as a protest against the failings of Fatah is beginning to resemble those it came to overthrow. In the 12 years since it came to power, its armed struggle against Israel has achieved no tangible results; rather it has supplied a pretext for Israeli brutality and added to the growing suffering and discontent in Gaza. A poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research suggests that the worsening situation in Gaza is now attributed by Gazans not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as well.
Egypt is playing an active role in negotiating a truce, completing the triangle of the three politically interested sides with common borders. However, in order to reach an agreement serious obstacles have to be overcome. While Hamas has called for a reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority, this has been rejected by the PA’s president Mahmoud Abbas, who is also is reluctant to make a firm commitment to the rehabilitation of Gaza. Another major obstacle is the issue of the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for missing Israeli soldiers and for two Israeli citizens captured while crossing the border with Gaza. Massive pressure has been brought to bear on the Israeli government not to agree to any cease-fire until this issue is resolved; and while in public the government has declared its full commitment to such demands, it is obviously reluctant to repeat the formula that led to the release of Gilad Shalit. An agreement now would require deferring this issue.
The recent hostilities have been in complete contrast to the relative flexibility both sides have shown in negotiations, where they consented to opening the crossing and allowing the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, and halting Israeli military actions, in exchange for an end to Palestinian protests along the Gaza–Israel fence and of incendiary kites, balloons and rockets launched at Israel. Additionally, the readiness of regional powers, especially the Gulf states, to provide economic support to begin the much needed reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, as well as Egypt’s mediation role, are good signs of a recognition across the region of the dangers of leaving the situation in Gaza as it is or even allowing it to deteriorate. However, what seems to be the most logical first step toward a comprehensive solution is hanging on a thread — at the mercy of Israel’s and Hamas’s leadership.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.