Cairo – As diplomatic efforts, brokered by Egypt, to secure a ceasefire have failed to make headway on Sunday, Qatar, which has been acting as a channel of communication between Hamas and the international community, is due to host a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to try to reach a ceasefire agreement to end 12 days of Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.
The offensive on Gaza has left more than 400 Palestinians dead, including at least 70 children, and more than 2,400 injured so far while the total death toll to the Israeli side is seven.
Last week, Egypt proposed a bid to end the fighting. Hamas leaders, however, rejected it saying any deal must include an end to a blockade of the coastal areas. On Saturday, it handed Qatar a list of its demands to end the fighting. “Egypt’s ceasefire initiative could not meet Hamas’ conditions, ” said Walid Kazziha, political science professor at the American University in Cairo.
“The Egyptian ceasefire proposal was simply a truce and perpetuation of the state of subordination of Gaza to the Israeli and Egyptian siege,” Kazziha added. For Egypt to have a successful mediating role, he added, “it needs to abandon the role of strangulation it is exercising against Gaza”.
On Saturday, Egypt said it had no plans to revise its ceasefire proposal. In a new development, however, Hamas sources confirmed that its leader Khaled Mashaal had received an official invitation to visit Cairo and participate in the ceasefire talks. A Hamas source in Doha said the group has no plans to change its conditions for a ceasefire. And on Sunday, Egyptian foreign ministry sources denied issuing the invitation, calling it another Hamas “manoeuvre”.
A UN statement said Ban will be travelling to Doha, Kuwait City, Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman and that other stops might be added.
Egypt has been a key broker in previous conflicts between Israel and Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi helped broker an agreement that ended the previous round of hostilities in November 2012. Hamas viewed the Islamist Egyptian president as an ally.
However, the Egyptian military’s ousting of Morsi in July 2013 led to a drastic shift in Egypt’s policy towards Gaza; the relationship between the Egyptian government and Hamas has changed from alliance to enmity.
Although Egypt was slow to react to the current crisis which began on July 8, they are now keen to be seen as sole mediators, according to analysts.
Although Israel unanimously accepted Egypt’s initial ceasefire proposal, there are contradictory reports over whether Egypt presented its initial ceasefire to Hamas or not; Hamas claims they weren’t even consulted and learned about the proposal through the media. Hamas later officially rejected the proposal.
“What we saw with the first go-around of this ceasefire proposal was, initially at least, Hamas was rejecting Egyptian mediation and saying clearly that they did not view Egypt as even-handed enough to serve as mediator,” says Michele Dunne, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In addition to severely tightening passenger controls at the Rafah crossing in the aftermath of Morsi’s ousting, Egypt has also tightened the blockade on Gaza by destroying most of the tunnels linking the enclave with Egyptian territory, which Egypt says are used to smuggle weapons, and fuel a Jihadist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
However, the tunnels have also provided a lifeline to Gaza, facilitating the transfer of much needed supplies that are otherwise usually unavailable. The tiny Palestinian enclave, which is home to over 1.8 million people, has been blockaded by Israel by land, air, and sea since 2007.
Despite the continued escalation in violence, most analysts believe a ceasefire agreement is likely to emerge relatively soon because a protracted conflict is not in the interests of Israel, Hamas or Egypt.
Talks in Egypt remain ongoing. The US and the Arab League have publicly backed Egypt’s mediation attempts and reports suggest that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has been in Cairo meeting Hamas delegates.
From an Israeli perspective, analysts say, the Israeli government is counting on the Egyptian mediation efforts.
“I think that right now, the Israeli government would not accept any mediation which is not based on Egypt as mediator,” says Yoram Meital, political science professor at Ben Gurion University. There are other potential mediators such as Qatar and Turkey; as they have a better standing with Hamas, however, they are not on good terms with Israel. “Israel may accept Qatari involvement,” believes Meital, “but only under the umbrella of an Egyptian initiative”.
A failure to mediate effectively could affect the popularity of Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It could also affect Egypt’s international standing. “I think the likelihood is Egypt will fail if they are the sole mediator because I don’t think Hamas sees them as a level player,” says Zack Gold, adjunct fellow with the American Security Project.
“Unlike in the Mubarak years, the current government does not have leverage over Hamas and unlike the Morsi years the government doesn’t have political sway. So Hamas doesn’t really trust the Egyptian government, it’s been given no reason to, so it is unlikely to succeed.”
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The Egyptians have sharply criticised Hamas for their failure to agree to a ceasefire. Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, told Egypt’s state-run news agency that if Hamas had accepted the Egyptian proposal, at least 40 Palestinian lives could have been saved.
Not only is Egypt’s poor standing with Hamas an issue, but also prior failures of ceasefire agreements are a factor. “I think that we’ve seen, from the effort that fell apart, that Egypt tried to offer a solution that was simply a cessation of violence but not an opportunity to provide a normalcy or stability for the situation,” Gold says. “The ceasefire of 2012 was meant to first halt violence and then create a political development for Gaza to change the paradigm of the situation.”
Following the 2012 ceasefire agreement, the crossings were relaxed, the area in which Gaza’s fishermen were allowed to operate was increased.These measures were supposed to be followed by greater political developments to ease Gaza’s isolation but they never materialised.
Israel failed to implement political development measures, but so did Egypt. “Morsi had a bargain with the Egyptian military and that meant that his control over national security affairs was extremely limited,” says Dunne. “The Brotherhood [agreed that] they were not going to antagonise Israel and constrain the army’s operations in the Sinai and on the border with Gaza.”
Hamas have been clear about their current demands, which go beyond the terms stipulated in the 2012 ceasefire agreement, insisting that Israel release Palestinian prisoners and provide a maritime corridor. A central demand remains that Egypt open the Rafah crossing for 24 hours a day. Israel and Egypt have so far resisted these demands.
Egypt’s recent ceasefire proposal did commit signatories to ease restrictions at the crossings to Gaza, although it did not specifically mention Egypt’s Rafah crossing.
“I think [Hamas’] concern about this particular ceasefire proposal was that by not specifically mentioning Rafah, they had no reason to trust that Egypt would open it,” Gold says.
Most analysts believe that any kind of ceasefire is inevitably going to require Egypt to ease its pressure on Gaza to some extent; whether they officially open the border at Rafah or decide to quietly allow the tunnel network to function again.
“Ultimately Israel may succeed in downsizing Hamas, but Egypt could also be a loser by making itself irrelevant as a mediator. Someone else may step in, for example Qatar. Israel will eventually need an exit policy, and a mediator will be needed by both sides of the conflict. An Arab party has to step in. At the moment Egypt [has] somehow neutralised itself.”