Behind the scene efforts for a Gaza ceasefire
By: Raghida Dergham
The positions of U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry concerning Gaza are puzzling, because of their incoherence, and lack of a corresponding strategy of thinking and taking action. The efforts of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are marred by dithering and over-cautiousness, as he fears inviting Israeli resentment, Arab censure, and the American wrath.
Turkey has imposed itself on the Gaza issue to rival and outbid Egypt, after the latter toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-led regime, which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had backed, turning against the secular traditions of Atatürk and the Turkish republic. Meanwhile, Iran kept mum in the beginning, before it finally spoke through the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and called for arming Hamas — which Tehran has been allegedly supplying with rockets via the tunnels in Gaza.
In my opinion, Qatar has almost installed itself as the exclusive representative of Hamas, negotiating on its behalf and communicating its demands to Washington, New York, and Cairo. Saudi Arabia has supported the Egyptian ceasefire initiative, and reportedly expressed reservations about the Qatari-Turkish alternative initiative. Saudi Arabia is also keen on not abandoning or disregarding the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, and seeks to save the Arab peace initiative from total demise.
Then there is Hamas, which sees events in Gaza as a strategic achievement for having brought it back to the political fore. The events in Gaza also gave Hamas the chance to challenge Israel’s might and military machine, made it a de facto negotiating party opposite Israel, and rallied sympathy and support from the international and Islamic public opinion.
As for Israel, it has now added to its list of demands: disarming the Palestinian factions, demilitarizing Gaza, and demolishing the tunnels either through international guarantees or through the destruction of homes and buildings situated on top of them, at any cost. In the meantime, the number of Palestinian civilian casualties has surpassed 1,700.
Also in the meantime, and while Hamas’ rockets negotiate with Israel’s firepower, a Palestinian child is being killed every hour. And in the meantime still, the chances for peace are on a path to extinction amid increasing clamoring for a “humanitarian truce,” while the specter of more massacres looms on the horizon.
With its viciousness, Israel has reaped a strategic setback in its war with an organization it designates as “terrorist,” and yet with which it was forced to negotiate — through a third party — for a ceasefire. Israel has reaped for itself a reputation for moral bankruptcy as it has justified the targeting of civilians, the killing of children, and the shelling of U.N.-protected schools.
The Israeli government — and the Israeli public’s support of its actions — has drawn the ire of the international public opinion, which can no longer bear seeing child victims, destroyed homes, and the bombardment of the only power plant in Gaza and its hospitals.
A significant number of commentators, historians, and academics now dare to describe Israel’s actions as “ethnic cleansing.” Some of them have stated that what had happened in 1948 was truly “ethnic cleansing” meant to pave the way for the Jewish state of Israel after driving out the Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims. More and more voices are criticizing Israeli practices in Gaza, where people are humiliated and deprived of the chance to lead normal lives because of Israel’s crippling blockade.
The chances for peace are on a path to extinction amid increasing clamoring for a “humanitarian truce”
Some in the American — and not just the European — media began challenging the narrative that Israel is exercising its right to self-defense, and that Israel warns families to evacuate their homes before shelling them — but evacuate to where, as everyone is now asking? Questions have started making their way to the public opinion regarding what Israel really means by insisting on getting international recognition for it as a Jewish state — in the sense of a state free of Palestinians — and what this may entail in terms of forced deportations and “ethnic cleansing” in the 21st century.
Certainly, all this anger directed at Israel has not exempted Hamas from the responsibility of hiding rockets among Palestinian civilians, launching rockets on Israelis, and building tunnels to receive sophisticated weapons from Iran. All this occurred while Hamas was joining a government led by the Palestinian Authority, which is committed to peaceful negotiations rather than armed struggle. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and other armed organizations, wanted to impose themselves as direct players against Israel — or others wanted them to do so.
These “others” have different identities, nationalities, and goals. Who was behind the abduction and murder of three young Israelis? Who is pushing Hamas to launch rockets and reject the Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire? Perhaps Qatar and Turkey encouraged Hamas to reject the Egyptian initiative, but I believe it is Iran whose name is linked in more than one forum to the incitement to ignite a confrontation with Israel. The reason, as many are suggesting, is that Iran wants to tell the Obama administration that it possesses the keys to the Middle East – not just to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen, but also to Israel’s backyard.
Tehran is aware that President Barack Obama wants, more than anything, the finalization of a nuclear deal and the normalization of relations with Iran to become his historical legacy. Tehran believes that it can drag the United States to where it wants it to be, namely, to give Iran what it wants — the nuclear deal and pledging not to attempt to overthrow its regime. Iran believes that the time is right for bargains and to communicate a message highlighting its importance in terms of developments in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, since it can either stop the flow of rockets or double the number of rockets sent to Hamas and other organizations.
A ceasefire is the first stop that the U.N. and the United States are seeking, and to achieve it, Ban Ki-moon is closely coordinating with John Kerry to assist him in his efforts. Ban Ki-moon has been expressing sorrow, regret, and resentment on a daily basis, calling for a “humanitarian truce,” “ceasefire,” “dialogue,” and addressing the root causes of the problem. The key to a ceasefire seem to be in the hands of Qatar, Turkey, and Iran in light of their ties to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Hurdles obstructing a ceasefire
In parallel, the hurdles impeding a ceasefire are growing not only because of Hamas’ rejection of a permanent ceasefire if not accompanied by an end to the blockade, but also because Israel is determined to continue the war on Gaza to destroy the tunnels, having realized that this is an achievable goal while eliminating Hamas’s rocket arsenal would be much more difficult to accomplish.
Efforts are focused on achieving a ceasefire or a humanitarian truce accompanied by behind-the-scenes efforts for an agreement that would address both Israel and Hamas’ demands. In other words, according to a Western diplomatic source, the aim is to “reach a ceasefire agreement accompanied by an agreement that would address other issues, including disarmament in Gaza, opening the crossings, and the return of the Palestinian Authority to the Strip.” The source said, “Disarmament is intended to be a guarantee to Israel that Gaza would not be used again to launch rockets, which, if agreed upon, would require a monitoring mechanism in place.” The diplomat, who is familiar with these efforts, stressed the “importance of giving the Palestinians guarantees regarding the opening of the crossings and the movement of persons and goods, as well as fishing, and the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza.”
How realistic these aspirations are is something that is yet to be determined. For one thing, they remain exploratory ideas being developed by Washington with Riyadh, Doha, Cairo, and Ankara, but not with Tehran, unless this is being done secretly. The Israeli campaign against John Kerry, whom the Israelis have described as an “alien,” has backfired somewhat, but it did not shut down communications between the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. John Kerry is still looking for that elusive solution, and believes that the tragedy in Gaza could move things toward radical solutions to the Gaza Strip, namely transforming the Strip into a demilitarized zone and disarming Palestinian factions in exchange for lifting the siege on Gaza and the return of the Palestinian Authority to the Strip.
Israel might be interested in such a solution, which would render Gaza a model for what the Palestinian state as desired by Israel would look like — that is, a demilitarized state that does not have sovereignty. What Israel does not want and will not allow is the “two-state” solution as John Kerry envisions and as the international community has adopted it.
Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that radical solutions to the Palestinian question are within reach. Instead, it is possible to imagine that hundreds of Palestinian civilian victims, if not thousands, may perish before a ceasefire agreement is reached between Hamas and Israel, one that would tackle the relationship between them on the ruins of Gaza and its people.
What will not happen is forcing Egypt to open its border with Gaza so that Israel can bombard it and drive its people out. What is likely to happen, however, is Israel taking all military measures to ensure the destruction of the tunnels and to prevent their reconstruction in order to bring in more rockets, even if that took committing massacres that ruin Israel’s reputation further.
What will the Obama administration do? It will issue condemnations, as it has done against Israel’s shelling of an UNRWA-run school. It may allow a U.N. Security Council resolution to be passed, along the lines of the presidential statement it allowed to be issued last week. This had set a precedent in U.S. attitudes regarding statements and resolutions issued by the U.N. Security Council on Israel, as the statement in question spoke about accountability and criticized the continuing violations of international humanitarian law.
What the Obama administration needs to do, first, is to go back to the drawing board to draft a strategy to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the facts on the ground, including, most notably, the fact that Netanyahu has declared that Israel would never accept Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank or Gaza, in the process signaling the death of the two-state solution, which represents a pillar of U.S. policy.
A partial treatment of the Gaza issue on the basis of disarming the Strip in return for lifting the siege is nothing more than an example of the radical decline in Washington’s positions, since this would undermine the two-state solution and accelerate its demise.
The Middle Eastern countries should stop taking advantage of the Palestinians, especially Turkey and Iran. But the Arab countries have also long exploited the Palestinian cause, and flooded Palestine with empty promises. It is time for these countries to either support a military solution explicitly and take part in the war with Israel, or find other ways to support the civil resistance of the Palestinians before Israel begins implementing the demographic solution, which requires Israel to engage in “ethnic cleansing” to become a purely Jewish state. There are many options. At the Palestinian level, it has become urgent for all rival leaderships to decide whether a Palestinian child killed every hour is a cheap price to pay or whether it is too high a cost.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.