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Israel used ceasefire plan to escalate war

Hamas would have been damned if it accepted the Egypt-sponsored ceasefire and damned if it did not.

Last updated: 20 Jul 2014 08:54
Sharif Nashashibi

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.
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More than 300 people have died so far in Gaza as a result of the Israeli offensive [Reuters]

A week of ceasefire calls, efforts and proposals has not stopped Israel from launching a ground invasion of Gaza in tandem with its aerial and naval bombardments. Developments suggest that Israel, while accepting an Egyptian proposal, used it as a pretext to intensify and widen its offensive. Cairo, which since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi last summer is as hostile to Hamas as Israel is, may have enabled such a plan, deliberately or otherwise.

Hamas, which has roots in Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said it was never consulted about Cairo's ceasefire proposal, having learned of it from media reports. It is extraordinary that a supposed mediator between two warring parties would exclude one of them from the process.

This would almost ensure that party's rejection, regardless of the proposal's content, because it would be humiliating to accept something presented as a fait accompli. As such, Hamas' rejection was hardly surprising, describing the initiative as one of "bowing and submission".

A ceasefire trap?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statement that "the Egyptian proposal gives the opportunity to address the disarmament" of Gaza was likely intended to ensure rejection by Palestinian militants there. After all, this was not stipulated in the plan, as described in media reports. Netanyahu said Hamas' rejection "leaves us no choice but to expand and intensify the campaign against it" and to do so with "international legitimacy".

Egypt contributed to this deluded sense of legitimacy by blaming Hamas - as well as Qatar and Turkey - for the failure of its proposal. The next day, Israel launched its ground invasion. This week's developments could not have been better scripted in favour of such an outcome, with Israel portraying itself as having no choice against a belligerent foe, and the traditional mediator over Gaza helping to foster that impression.

Given the regular contact between Israel and Egypt, it is not outlandish to suspect that this was a trap designed to ensnare Hamas. The latter rejected Cairo's proposal "in its current form" - not outright - and notified it of desired changes. However, there has been no attempt by Egypt to modify its plan. Indeed, Cairo had been criticised from the outset for the sluggish nature of its mediation, leading to speculation that it was happy to see Israel deal a decisive blow to Hamas.

If the Palestinian faction was uninterested in a ceasefire, it would not have subsequently floated its own proposal for a 10-year truce. This was announced on Al Jazeera and reported by Israeli media. If Netanyahu genuinely sought an end to hostilities, he would have taken Hamas' plan into consideration.

He did not even respond - nor did Egypt - despite the terms being eminently reasonable. They include lifting the siege of Gaza, economic development of the territory, UN supervision of borders, crossings, the airport and seaport, easing conditions for permits to pray at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque, respect for the national reconciliation deal, and the freeing of Palestinians detained since the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers last month.

The problem for Hamas is that in terms of accepting the Egyptian proposal, it would have been damned if it did and damned if it did not. One of its primary objections was negotiating longer-term issues after a ceasefire was agreed, preferring instead to do both simultaneously.

This thinking was borne out of the experience of the last ceasefire agreement in 2012. The terms stipulated that after 24 hours, talks would begin on opening crossings into Gaza and allowing free movement of people and goods. That did not happen, and the two sides disagreed on what that meant. Hamas said the deal covered the opening of all Gaza's border crossings with Israel and Egypt, but Israel said it would not lift its blockade.

A repeat of this would mean Hamas not having anything tangible to show the Palestinians of Gaza for all the death and destruction Israel is inflicting on them. This could undermine its popularity and its image as an effective resister of Israeli aggression.

However, agreeing short- and longer-term issues simultaneously would provide no guarantee of Israel's abidance. Indeed, it has left behind a trail of violated deals. Within just a week of the 2012 ceasefire taking effect, Israel had killed a Gaza Palestinian civilian, injured at least 15, arrested nine fishermen at sea, and sunk several fishing boats, not to mention numerous provocations in the West Bank. No Palestinian factions responded to these clear violations.

Hamas' defiance

A fundamental difficulty facing Hamas is that Israel feels no need for comprehensive negotiations. The latter has maintained its siege of Gaza without international repercussions, and is being aided and abetted by Egypt. International calls for a ceasefire have largely ignored the underlying issue of the blockade.

In addition, Hamas' current domestic and regional positions are weak. At home, in Gaza, it has failed to improve the lot of Palestinians or bring them any closer to statehood. It is also openly at odds with the Palestinian Authority despite the reconciliation deal, which now exists in name only. Regionally, it has lost an ally in Morsi, as well as backing from Damascus and Tehran due to its support for the Syrian revolution. It is also viewed unfavourably by certain Gulf states.

INTERACTIVE: Gaza Under Attack

As such, it is unlikely to be able to push for better terms from Israel. Neither can Hamas indefinitely sustain an onslaught from a much more powerful enemy. For all the rockets it has fired, and their increased range, the vast majority have been intercepted, and they have only managed to kill one Israeli.

Contrast this with more than 300 Palestinian deaths and almost 2,000 injuries (the vast majority civilians), tens of thousands displaced, more than 15,000 homes partially or totally destroyed, and the water, health, sewage, electricity and education systems in ruins. Such death and destruction will skyrocket now that a ground invasion is under way.

Many Palestinians in Gaza say they refuse to go back to the status quo ante. Such sentiments are understandable given their miserable existence in what is the world's largest open-air prison. As UNRWA's Gaza director Robert Turner said: "A return to 'calm' is a return to ... confinement," with "no external access to markets, employment, or education - in short, no access to the outside world".  

However, it would be highly risky for Hamas to base its defiance on that of the civilian population - given that the latter are bearing the brunt of Israel's onslaught - because it would not want to be seen as callous with Palestinian life. Meanwhile, the more iron-fisted Netanyahu's policies, the more domestic popularity he seems to gain.

Hamas may be counting on increased international condemnation putting a stop to Israel, however, by the time that happens, Gaza Palestinians' losses - and those of Hamas - may dwarf what they have already endured.

The Palestinian faction is in an unenviable, perhaps impossible, situation, and Israel is taking advantage of this. As if Netanyahu's actions are not shameful enough, regional positions and circumstances are helping him wage a war whose primary target, despite the rhetoric, is Gaza's captive civilian population. Unfortunately, it is he who will decide how long this conflict lasts and at what cost to the Palestinian people.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.

Follow him on Twitter: @sharifnash

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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