The Human Toll
As the human toll rises to more than 1000 dead on the Palestinian side and over 43 on the Israeli side, progress towards a ceasefire only exists in the words of politicians. Around 6,000 Gazans have been injured and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes. And while Israel claims that it targeted Hamas militants and their infrastructure, it is evidently Palestinian civilians including many children (over 200 so far), who paid the price and suffered most during the past 20 days of the Israeli offensive.
A Rejected Initiative
It is worth noting that the number of Palestinian fatalities was around 50 deaths at the time when Egypt presented its ceasefire initiatives 12 days ago. Hamas rejected the initiative and claimed it was not consulted in drafting its terms. Egyptian officials insist that all parties were consulted. "The whole world has praised Egypt's initiative, but Hamas rejected it", said Mehleb, Egypt's prime minister who denied earlier reports that Egypt was willing to "tweak" its ceasefire initiative. In a joint press conference with Ban Ki-moon; Sameh Shoukry, minister of foreign affairs; said that Egypt had no plans to amend its initiative and received no proposals with additional items other than those already included in it. Egypt had proposed an immediate ceasefire, ceasing hostilities from both sides and opening of crossings to facilitate "the passage of persons and goods... once the security situation becomes stable on the ground" followed by discussions to address security and other concerns of both sides. Talks are to be "held with each of the two sides separately, in accordance with the agreements for the consolidation of de-escalation in Cairo in 2012."
So, why did Hamas reject this initiative, exposing Palestinians to additional deaths and suffering?
Hamas possibly believes that its rockets threatening Israeli cities and its better-then-expected fighting capacity must earn it some rewards. FAA banned flights to Ben Gurion Airport for 24 hours last week, shaking the confidence in Israel's ability to secure its airspace, additionally causing considerable damage to Israeli tourism industry and its economy at large. The ban was lifted later. Kerry had not observed the ban when he flew in Tel Aviv a day earlier.
Change of Priorities
Hamas, started in 1980s as an Islamic Resistance Movement against the Israeli occupation. The famous scenes of children and youth resisting Israeli soldiers with nothing more than stones changed the rules of the game. The relatively "peaceful" resistance was often met with brutal force from the Israeli army, and members of the Knesset questioned IDF practices in breaking the bones of those little children. Hamas was so effective that it probably was one of the reasons why Israel was forced into signing Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Hamas was perhaps more effective as a resistance movement than a ruling power. As a resistance movement, it could always act as an informal army of the Palestinian cause, inflicting damage on Israel without giving an excuse to Israel for retaliation on Palestinian population.
After seizing power in 2007, it became increasingly evident that Hamas's priorities changed. Survival and sustaining its position in power became Hamas's first priority. The Palestinian cause had to take a back seat. In pursuing its own agenda, new words and titles replaced old ones. Instead of talking about restoring Palestinian rights, the news talked about lifting Gaza's blockade. Instead of demanding returning occupied lands and ensuring the right of return to Palestinian refugees, the new narrative was about the Fatah and Hamas dispute and the opening of Rafah crossing with Egypt! Hamas has reduced the Palestinian cause from one where Palestinians deserve a viable State to live on like any other nation, to a series of petty quarrels and disputes over side issues.
How does Egypt cut in?
The Palestinian cause has always been in the heart of the Egyptian ideology and national security paradigm. But by its support to militants in Sinai and its insistence that Egypt gives up control on its borders, Hamas is effectively asking Egyptians to choose between Egypt and Palestine. Egyptian policy makers should not be dragged into this trap. They should continue to pursue a strategy which demands restoration of Palestinian rights while taking all measures to protect Egyptian borders, internal security and territorial integrity.
With theParis meeting, some analysts suggest that if a successful initiative comes from Turkey or Qatar, that would weaken Egypt's regional position as the main broker between Israel and the Palestinians. I do not share this sentiment. If Turkey or Qatar are able to broker a deal which will spare Palestinian lives, well and good. As long as it does not come at the expense of Egyptian lives as a result of diminished control over borders or future Palestinian lives when the conflict erupts again sooner or later.
The Forgotten Cause
Hamas has managed to distort the Palestinian issue from one where Palestinians are rightfully demanding their land and the right to live a decent life in peace on ancestral Palestine, to a Palestinian-Palestinian quarrel between Hamas and Fatah, or a Gaza-Egypt conflict over the Rafah crossing. Hamas's biggest concern became resuming daily collection of the millions of dollars in revenues from operating over 1,600 illegal tunnels between Gaza and Egypt (Egyptian army claims to have destroyed 1,639 tunnels in the past 12 months). The tunnels became the main source of wealth to Hamas leaders who collected fees from smuggling of goods through the tunnels. These tunnels were tolerated by Mubarak regime to provide Gaza a break. The tunnels were allegedly used by Hamas during the January revolution of 2011 to infiltrate Egyptian borders with fighters who helped storm prisons where Brotherhood leaders were detained and released them. Egyptian security believes that upon Morsi's removal, the tunnels were used to smuggle arms to terrorists in Sinai responsible for countless attacks on Egyptian targets with hundreds of death amongst police and military personnel as well as tribal leaders and civilian victims.
When Negotiations can never work
The real solution to Gaza suffering is not in the opening of Rafah crossing or placing it under international administration, something Egypt should never allow. The solution to the Gaza crisis is in ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, dismantling the settlements and allowing emergence of a Palestinian state, a state that is economically and administratively viable in terms of resources, connectivity and security. And due to power parity between Palestinians and Israelis, negotiations could never lead to a fair deal. Avenues to resolve the conflict, as a result, are not many.
One of the strategies goes like this. Hamas (or another Palestinian Resistance Movement) would leverage its limited firepower through disrupting Israel's business-as-usual attitude towards the Palestinian suffering. For instance shelling of the airport and similar targets could disrupt normalcy and send Israelis to underground bunkers without actually acquiring the stains of civilian blood on its (Hamas's) hands. A sustained campaign of this nature could in theory hurt the Israeli economy to an extent where Israel is forced to accept a fair settlement. Needless to say, Palestinian suffering and death count will be 100 times more. But when you are suffocating to a slow death and have nothing to lose and out of alternatives, trading your own blood may start to look like a sensible option. It is worth noting that according to the Jerusalem Post, 86.5 percent of Israelis are opposed to a ceasefire in Gaza.
And here comes the PR fold of the strategy. Provoking Israel will (did) lure it into a retaliatory offensive that would claim thousands of lives of civilians in Gaza, including women and children. Advocates of the Palestinian cause around the world would then use the suffering and the blood in morally obligating the international community to pressure Israel into a lasting settlement. The risk is the attention span of international media is often too short. After a while, death becomes a mere rising statistic as the conflict develops into another chronic case of mass murder.
Hamas, however, does not seem to be pushing an agenda for a comprehensive settlement. Why? One reason could be that its ideology has always been to reject the right of Israel to exist, and hence, no settlement with Israel is ever possible. Another, more pragmatic one, is that Hamas had always thrived on conflict. Its economic interests are tied with the sustainment of a low-intensity conflict with periodical spikes and a state of semi-lawlessness which permit it to formally seize power while also maintaining its underground operations and illegal revenues. After all, for mujahedin and professional combatants, peace means loss of valuable business.
Perhaps Gazans are starting to realize that. A recent poll shows that while a two-state solution has suddenly become the goal of only the minority in Gaza, the public sees that "popular resistance," rather than violence is the way to restore their rights in historical Palestine. The researcher suggests that a majority of the public in Gaza rejects Hamas's policies and leaders and wants a ceasefire.
To some, Israel's Prime Minister, Netanyahu, seems very similar to Hamas's leaders in the sense that he seems convinced that resolving conflict is against the best interests of Israel. Resolving the conflict would mean giving back sizable chunks of land to Palestinians and an end to Israel's military imposed control over the territory. Resolving the conflict also means, well, peace. Peace means there are no external enemies to fight. Having an existential external threat unites people. Israel, in Netanyahu's calculations as it appears to us, may be devastated by such a possibility.
How to End the Conflict
So while diplomats travel back and forth, it seems that those in power on both sides of the fighting, have little desire to truly resolve the conflict at the root level. All that can be reached are temporary solutions, peace-of-the-day sort of deals, which could last from a few months to a couple of years, after which the situation is bound to explode again because it is unbearable for anyone to live how Palestinians are forced to. If the world, however, wishes to actually solve the conflict, and has the will to do so, and the courage to stand against the powerful pro-Israel lobby and Islamist propaganda machine, the international community should force both parties to accept binding arbitration or slam the parties with international sanctions and isolation if they don't.