Hope against history for Gaza ceasefire

Palestinians celebrate Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation outside the home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Last week’s violence in and around Gaza came at a seemingly odd moment.

Negotiations for a longer term indirect ceasefire agreement between Palestinian factions in Gaza led by Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, the UN and (to some degree) Qatar, seemed to be bearing fruit.

Qatari cash was delivered to Gaza to pay government employees. A leaked draft agreement indicated that Israel would eventually ease the blockade of Gaza by as much as 70 percent to allow crucial infrastructure projects to start and ease movement. And Egyptian officials began monitoring demonstrations held weekly as part of the Great March of Return protests.

And then Israel decided to send a special operations team into Gaza, blowing all this promise into smithereens. A cessation of hostilities has been agreed – sulkingly, apparently, in Israel, where many politicians clearly believe that more bloodshed is the popular option – but it remains to be seen what it will mean for chances to lift or ease the blockade on Gaza, without which there will be no enduring ceasefire.

The events of the last week or so suggest a number of things. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, is increasingly becoming irrelevant when it comes to all matters Gaza, though the PA will eventually need to agree to reconcile with Hamas for a long-term truce to be agreed. Washington’s defense of Israeli aggression is feverish and US diplomacy has been relegated to cheerleading. No one is holding their breath for the Ultimate Deal™.

Regional mediation, on the other hand, can still play an important role. It remains limited by the political temperature in Israel, where the military option always seems to be the easy one, and the complicated triangulations between Hamas and the PA, Egypt and Qatar.

A devastating track record

It is too early to predict whether the current ceasefire will hold, will solidify into a longer term truce or descend into another – fourth – all-out Israeli military offensive on occupied Gaza.

But history suggests this is the beginning of preparations for a fourth Israeli assault on Gaza.

Israel has a track record of blowing up ceasefires. In 2008, a six-month ceasefire had been agreed, after Egyptian mediation, in June. It began to unravel after an Israeli raid into Gaza on 4 November – incidentally (or not) on the same day Americans went to vote in US presidential elections – that resulted in the killing of six Hamas fighters.

By the end of December – after a period in which foreign journalists were barred from Gaza in an apparent dry run for the main event – Israel launched the first of three all-out military offensives on Gaza, the so-called Operation Cast Lead, that lasted over three weeks and left more than 1,400 Palestinians, among them some 1,200 civilians, dead in Gaza. Three Israeli civilians were killed.

In 2012, and ahead of Israel’s second Gaza assault, Israeli mediators, with the consent of Israeli politicians, and Hamas officials were reportedly in talks over a long-term truce when Israel assassinated Ahmad Jabari, the Hamas leader who had just received a draft of that agreement for his approval, in a missile strike.

The 2012 “Pillar of Defense” attack lasted one week and left more than 100 Palestinian civilians dead. Four Israeli civilians were killed.

The easy option

The 2012 assault led to an Egyptian-mediated agreement that a ceasefire would also usher in a gradual opening of the blockade of Gaza that has strangled the narrow coastal strip of land economically and cut Palestinians there off from the rest of the world.

But while Hamas and other Palestinian factions mostly held their side of the bargain – even Benjamin Netanyahu, then as now prime minister, acknowledged that 2013 had seen the lowest number of rockets from Gaza in a decade – the Israelis did not. Crossings remained closed, the siege on Gaza tight, electricity supply intermittent and basic goods were at a premium.

Eventually, and after three Israeli students were killed in the West Bank, Israel launched its deadliest attack on Gaza in July 2014, a seven-week assault that left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead, among them over 1,400 civilians.

Four years have passed since then. Although the siege has remained in place, some positive steps were taken over the past few months that may at first glance seem significant. Israel has eased the electricity blockade, allowed $15 million in Qatari cash to enter to pay public servants and was in advanced talks to implement a longer term truce that would see a significant easing of the blockade on Gaza and could even include a sea passage from Gaza to Cyprus.

But every ceasefire and mediation attempt since Hamas ousted Palestinian Authority security forces from Gaza in 2007 has seemed significant, and every time Israel chose the military option, an easy way out for Israeli politicians to appease an evermore belligerent public opinion.

Bye, bye Lieberman

Early elections – otherwise scheduled for November 2019 – are now likely in Israel after Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister, resigned in protest, calling Netanyahu “weak” in dealing with Gaza, pulling his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of the coalition government.

The government has not quite toppled, but is hanging on with the slimmest of majorities. Logic dictates that war be undesirable for a sitting government during an election campaign, but in Israel, war on Gaza has not exactly proven unpopular. Moreover, Netanyahu is under a cloud of corruption allegations, and indictments are likely in the first quarter of 2019: a war of diversion is not out of the question.

Certainly, the option is open to Netanyahu.

That leaves regional mediation, as ever, at the mercy of Israeli grandstanding but without any useful input from Washington, where diplomats have been reduced to cheerleaders for Israel.

Much will depend on the threat from Netanyahu’s right. Lieberman’s gamble seems clear: by presenting a bullish and belligerent front he hopes to steal a march on Netanyahu and his other ultra-right rival, Naftali Bennett, the education minister who threatened to resign last week if he did not get Lieberman’s defense portfolio, but managed neither.

Lieberman, true to form, has avoided getting involved in anything too messy as defense minister. His tenure, by Israeli standards, has been unremarkable, certainly unremarkable for a man whose vision of a two-state solution involves transferring Palestinian citizens of Israel to a new Palestinian state by swapping Palestinian-majority areas inside Israel for settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank.

He has called for Palestinian members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to be prosecuted for treason, and wanted to “chop off” the heads of “anyone who’s against us.” And he repeatedly questions the loyalty of Palestinians living inside Israel.

Should calm prevail around Gaza, Lieberman’s gamble may backfire. But with the Israeli public seemingly divided between hard right and ultra right, he will be back, one way or another.

PA sidelined

The latest violence in Gaza also showed that Mahmoud Abbas is having little influence on events. Egyptian, UN and Qatari-sponsored mediation over a longer term truce had been conducted without the PA, angering Abbas, who was reported as saying that Hamas had no authority to reach any agreement with any party on behalf of the Palestinians.

Abbas did accede – after apparently strong Egyptian and Israeli pressure, including a threat by Israel to unilaterally subtract monies the PA is withholding from Gaza and deliver them directly – to ease PA-imposed sanctions on Gaza. These sanctions, in place since April 2017, have reduced PA payments to Gaza by some 10 percent, from $105 million to $95 million a month, affecting the civil service, healthcare, electricity and the fuel supply.

Of course, primary responsibility for Gaza lies with Israel, as the occupying power, and much of this trouble would end if there was any real intention on behalf of Israel or the US and other international players to end a blockade on Gaza that the UN says threatens imminent humanitarian disaster.

But Abbas has done himself no favors with his hard line towards the impoverished Gaza Strip. Protests have erupted in the West Bank over the position and rather than dislodge Hamas from power, as he apparently hoped, it has seen Hamas lose further faith in unity talks with the PA, and international mediators circumvent Ramallah.

In a meeting earlier in November, Abbas again lashed out at Hamas. Wafa, the PA’s official news agency, alleged Hamas was playing into the hands of Washington and accepting Qatari blood money to aid the “Zionist-American plan to separate the Strip from the West Bank.”

Abbas wants Gaza to come back under PA control and Hamas to disarm. Hamas will only do so to a restructured Palestine Liberation Organization that reflects its popularity and in which it has a real say. Until such a time, a long-term ceasefire with Israel and an end to the blockade on Gaza will prove tricky to reach.

Abbas cut short a trip to Kuwait when the latest round of violence flared and condemned Israel’s attacks. But Palestinians in Gaza need more than condemnation and the PA has proven obstructive rather than helpful in Gaza’s desperate need to escape its isolation.

That is why it was sidelined in the latest long-term ceasefire talks and much rests on the ability of Egypt and the UN to convince the PA to play along, while keeping Hamas and Israel at arm’s length, and on Qatar’s willingness to continue footing the bill.

The ultimate irrelevance

Abbas is concerned that by circumventing the PA, events are conspiring against Palestinian unity and could see a permanent severing of Gaza from the West Bank under the Ultimate Deal™ that is reportedly being concocted in Washington.

Abbas seems to believe that that plan – which no one has seen and it remains unclear whether one even exists – will propose statehood for Gaza and limited self-rule for areas of the West Bank now under PA control. It is a possibility he has already dismissed and one that no Palestinian, Arab or even Israeli leader supports or believes practical, for their various reasons.

The Ultimate Deal™ remains a mysterious unknown hovering somewhere offstage like an unloved actor that no one wants to come on and with only a bit part but who is needed to push forward the narrative. It is becoming the Ultimate Irrelevance©.

One potential “ace in the hole” for that plan, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is suspected by the CIA of having ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, something that will do his diplomatic credentials – already tarnished by questionable actions on Lebanon and Qatar as well as a bloody, brutal and long war on Yemen – little good.

Bin Salman’s cozying up to Israel had already been curtailed by his father, King Salman, who has repeatedly reiterated Riyadh’s traditional stance on Palestinian rights to a state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Washington has tried to undercut some of the thorniest issues before presenting a plan. It sanctioned the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, thus acceding to Israel’s claim to the city as its “eternal, undivided” capital.

It has ended funding to UNRWA, the UN body that looks after Palestinian refugees, in an apparent attempt to define them out of existence.

But rather than set the wheels in motion to what the White House must have thought would be the inevitable Palestinian surrender, it has seen Abbas dig his heels in and freeze contacts with the US. Hamas, on a US list of terror organizations, is not that way inclined anyway, whatever Abbas fears.

And with US diplomats, at the UN and in Washington, all simply cheering whatever Israel does, they have made themselves irrelevant. If all your diplomats are doing is supporting one side, there is no meaningful sense in which they can be said to be mediating. “Give me an ‘I,’” anyone?

Peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis will not come with American help, at least not under this administration.

A longer-term ceasefire, on the other hand, might just be attainable, in spite of this administration. It’s certainly in everyone’s interests, including Abbas and the PA’s.

But that has always been true.

Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper and associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.