ISRAEL AND THE Palestinians reach the end of their second cease-fire in two weeks. Civilians on both sides are nervous to see what is next. As representatives of both sides continue negotiations, the most important questions are: who are they representing, and what do they want?
Most of the media’s coverage of the negotiations focuses on Hamas. In part, this makes sense – since 2007, it is the ruling party in the Gaza Strip. It is, however, not the only Palestinian party at the negotiation table in Cairo. A few months ago, Hamas and Fatah reached an agreement regarding a unity government – the Palestinian Authority, therefore, is an important player in the negotiations. Furthermore, the Islamic Jihad, the second largest group in Gaza, is sitting in as well. This faction’s ties with Egypt are currently closer than those of Hamas, but more on that later.
Considering the number of casualties among Palestinians, it seems likely that Hamas is eager to stop the violence. But as shown in between the two cease-fires, and as pointed out by Israel time and again, the ruling party in Gaza appears to have no interest in a termination of their rocket firing. In fact, Hamas sticks to its demands: a complete end to the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, including harbours, and a reopening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
The blockade started after Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and gained control of the Gaza Strip. Since it was founded in 1987, Israel and most of its allies consider Hamas a terrorist organization. But as argued by Alaa Tartir in the Huffington Post, “[t]he Hamas of 2014 is dramatically different from the party of 1987 that penned a charter calling for the de facto rejection of Israel.” By participating in the 2006 elections, for example, Hamas acknowledged the Oslo Accords. Furthermore, its chairman Khaled Mash’al accepted a Palestinian state across the 1967 borders, thus indirectly recognizing the Israeli state.
Currently, Mash’al is pushing President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) so that charges can be made against Israel. However, Mash’al hereby risks an investigation into his own organization, which has also been accused of crimes against both Israeli and Palestinian citizens. Respectively, these are the firing of rockets into civilian areas, and using civilians as a human shield. Mash’al seems to be willing to take that risk.
Now that the political unity has been established, the Palestinian government is able to focus on other issues as well, such as travel opportunities for Palestinians with family members in each part of the Palestinian territories. Sources have confirmed that safe passage for civilians travelling between Gaza and the West Bank is part of the negotiations.
By not recognizing the evolution Hamas has gone through, Israel internally keeps in place an enemy that, according to polemologist Leon Wecke, plays an essential role in keeping the country together. “The Palestinian enemy plays an important role in creating a sense of cohesion in the country. It creates an opportunity to govern Israel despite large differences of opinion. Furthermore, the enemy provides part of a legitimation for the violence that is periodically unavoidable given the occupation and the nature of Israel’s government.”
Of course, current events only underline this enemy image Israelis have of Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular. The latest outburst of violence has shown that Palestinian militants are capable of entering Israeli soil through their tunnels – they managed to kill five soldiers on Israeli territory. Among Israeli civilians, this has increased the fear that at any moment, anywhere in the southern part of the country, armed militants can pop up like moles from the ground, shake off the dust and start a killing spree.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that Operation Protective Edge will not end until Israel is assured of a longer lasting end to rockets from the Gaza Strip. The Israelis will demand nothing less, but it is doubtful that Hamas will agree to disarming its militants. And although the Palestinians now have experienced that they are no match whatsoever to Israel militarily, they are as determined as they are united.
Despite the recent change of regime, Egypt again stepped up as the prime negotiator – both cease-fires were drafted in Cairo. But are al-Sisi’s motives truly beneficial for both parties? Even before the Presidential elections in Egypt, Hamas toned down its connections with the Muslim Brotherhood – thus anticipating on the outcome of the elections. Despite these precautions, Hamas’ connections with Egypt quickly deteriorated after the new President was installed. In fact, it is safe to say that Egypt’s ties with Israel are currently closer than those with Hamas. However, al-Sisi cannot afford to lose all connections to parties on the Gaza Strip. Blogger and commentator Nervana argues that it is in the President’s interest to hold at least some grip on the Gaza Strip, but also to not have the burden of responsibility completely. Now that al-Sisi managed to host the negotiations in his capital, Nervana argues, any outcome is positive for the President. Obviously, if peace talks succeed, he can take the credit. But if negotiations fail, Egypt will not be held accountable, and al-Sisi might even be happy with a continuous occupation of the Gaza Strip by Israel.
“Sisi will not just blame Israel and Hamas for the failure of the talks; he will also happily watch Israel sink more into the Gaza swamp. Israel’s occupation of Gaza will actually be Egypt’s best possible outcome. It will relieve the Egyptian authority from the headache of who and how to run the Rafah border between Gaza and Sinai, and will be perfect for Sinai’s security by ending the smuggling of weapons and militants from Gaza.”
The first 72-hour cease-fire between Israel and Hamas had barely ended when the first rockets flew across the sky again, in that little corner of the Mediterranean coastline. Hamas fired rockets at cities in southern Israel such as Ashkelon, Israel’s response took the lives of numerous Palestinians. The current cease-fire ends by the end of the week. Sources in Cairo revealed to several media that there might be some progress in the negotiations. Israel supposedly agreed to meet the Palestinians half-way regarding their demands on the end of the blockade and widening the distance to which Gazan fishermen can sail out. However, as the end of the cease-fire comes closer (tonight at 21:00 local time), civilians on both sides can do nothing but hold their breath, wait and see.
Written by Lisanne Oldekamp
Photo Credit: Robert Croma