Gaza truce diplomacy: The ever-changing mess

Palestinian negotiators agree on how to end the Gaza war, while Israel shuns new Cairo truce talks.

Hamas and Israel blamed each other for the breakdown in the latest humanitarian ceasefire [EPA]

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Palestinian negotiators in Cairo have agreed on a joint set of conditions to be presented to Egyptian mediators on how to end the war in Gaza, which has so far claimed the lives of more than 1,830 Palestinians, largely civilians, and 66 Israelis, almost all of them soldiers.

Qais Abdelkarim, a delegate who heads the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Al Jazeera that both Hamas and the broader Palestinian leadership will demand an end to the military siege imposed on Gaza, which includes lifting restrictions on the movement of people and goods through the border crossings.

“The Palestinians are also pressing previously agreed-upon demands, which include the release of pre-Oslo Accords detainees, as part of a US-sponsored agreement back in April,” Abdelkarim said. “We are also demanding the release of about 60 [recently re-arrested] prisoners who were freed in a 2011 exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.”

The delegations include members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Hamas and Islamic Jihad. A West Bank-based group arrived on Saturday, and a Hamas team, led by senior official Ezzat al-Risheq, followed on Sunday from several Arab capitals.

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In addition to al-Risheq, who arrived from Doha with senior Hamas official Mohammad Nasr, the Hamas delegation includes Cairo-based Moussa Abu Marzouq.

Two of its members from Gaza, Imad al-Alami and Khalil al-Hayya, said they could only leave through the Rafah crossing when Israeli shelling in the area stopped. Islamic Jihad meanwhile dispatched Ziad al-Nakhala from Beirut.

Israel has not sent a delegation, but will speak with Egyptian mediators after they finish meeting with the Palestinians.

A group of Palestinian and Israeli delegations was initially set to arrive at different times over the weekend, during a 72-hour ceasefire sponsored by the UN and US.

But the truce collapsed after just two hours, when Israel accused Hamas of capturing one of its soldiers. The incident drew condemnation from Washington, where US President Barack Obama blamed Hamas for breaking the ceasefire, and demanded the soldier’s release. He asked Turkey and Qatar, Hamas’ main international allies, to intercede.

Hamas officials said they never agreed to allow Israeli troops to stay on Palestinian territory. Israel said its soldiers would abide by a truce only in areas where it was “not operating”.

In any event, the story turned out to be false: The army announced on Sunday morning that the soldier was dead. Sami Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza, accused Israel of “deceiving the world” by claiming that he had been captured; diplomats at the US embassy in Tel Aviv were angry, accusing Israel of misleading them.

We have the opportunity for a political change, not with Hamas but against Hamas.

by - Tzipi Livni, Israeli justice minister

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), did not head to Cairo, but he was involved in selecting the West Bank delegation, which includes senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad and PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj.

Also joining the group are Bassam al-Salhi, of the Palestinian People’s Party, and Mahir al-Taher, the Damascus-based leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Israeli diplomats, meanwhile, see two possible endings to the war, which may not be mutually exclusive.

One is to simply withdraw its troops and unilaterally claim victory, as it did after the 2009 war. Military officials have pressured Netanyahu to remove ground troops, who currently have no clear mission in the strip; they began pulling out on Sunday, though the army will keep some deployed in the large “buffer zone” inside Gaza.

“With a unilateral ending, there would be no acceptance of Hamas’ demands,” said Oded Eran, a longtime Israeli diplomat. “But the disadvantage is that Israel cannot leverage the fact that other players stand to benefit, such as Egypt or the PA.”

A set of Palestinian demands presented to Egyptian mediators:
Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza
An end to the Israeli military siege/blockade on Gaza, which includes lifting restrictions on the movement of people and goods by opening the border crossings
The release of Palestinian parliament members, pre-Oslo Accords detainees, and about 60 recently re-arrested prisoners who were freed in a 2011 exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit 
Starting the re-construction process for Gaza
Ensuring Gaza has direct contact with the world which means re-building the airport and the port
Ensuring Palestinians have fishing rights up to 12 nautical miles off Gaza’s coast

That would require a broader agreement, guaranteed by the United Nations or some other third party.

The Israeli government has recently started to insist that any deal disarm Hamas, as a first step towards pushing it out of power in Gaza. Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, said on Sunday that there would be no talk with Hamas about lifting the blockade, and that Israel’s goal should be to “replace” it.

“It can come through international agreements that talk about demilitarisation, and the entrance of Abu Mazen to Gaza,” she said, referring to Abbas by his nickname. “We have the opportunity for a political change, not with Hamas but against Hamas.”

Israel seems confident that the army-backed government in Cairo shares its position. The latter has cracked down relentlessly on Hamas since it came to power last summer, branding it a terrorist organisation and destroying hundreds of smuggling tunnels into Gaza. It is unlikely to reopen Rafah unless Hamas agrees to relinquish control of the crossing.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian president, said on Saturday that there was “no effective alternative” to the Egyptian proposal. “The core of the initiative overcomes the obstacles and paves the way for an effective ceasefire,” he said during a visit by the Italian prime minister.

Hamas and other factions have so far rejected that proposal, which includes no concrete measures for easing the blockade. “I don’t think there’s any alternative,” said Gilead Sher, who was chief of staff to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“Egypt is quite clear about how it would like to manage this process. The Palestinians will have to concede if they want to proceed with a ceasefire.”

At the moment, then, there seems to be no outside mediator capable of bridging the gaps. US Secretary of State John Kerry has distanced himself from the region after failed negotiations last week.

“You cannot have a ceasefire when not all the parties are willing to sit down,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former PLO adviser. “My fear is that … Israel will end its military actions unilaterally, but it’s not going to get to the heart of the issue which is the fact that the Gaza Strip has been living under a military blockade now for 8 years.”

Dalia Hatuqa reported from Ramallah, and Gregg Carlstrom from Tel Aviv.

Source: Al Jazeera