Too many diplomats spoil the ceasefire
By: Yossi Mekelberg
One can hardly recall another example of a conflict in which so many ceasefires were called and rejected in such a short time by one or both of the sides. Such has been the case in the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. The most recent 72-hour truce appears to be holding, after the last one was broken abruptly within less than two hours. Both sides desperately need the fighting to come to a complete halt for their own reasons. However, even after more than three weeks of unabated bloodshed, it seems they still believe that there is enough unfinished business to carry on. For the outside observer of this horrific bloodshed, a truce, even a short humanitarian one, might seem like the only logical conclusion. However, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has demonstrated time and again, it defies logic and both sides seem determined to inflict pain on their enemy, regardless of if it genuinely serves their national interest. Establishing a ceasefire also requires honest and capable brokers. There is certainly no shortage of willing mediators who have stepped forward offering their assistance in negotiating an end to the hostilities between Hamas and Israel. Nevertheless, the mediators themselves are not only baffled by Israeli and Palestinian behavior, but they are also beset by their own divisions and rivalries.
Divisions among the international mediators has enabled both sides to ignore any pleas to stop the bloodshed
Due to the asymmetry in military capabilities between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian side sustains a much larger number of casualties than the Israeli one, and its civilian and military infrastructure are suffering gravely. Hence, there is an oversimplified expectation that it would be the side more desperate to call a truce. Yet, Israel, who shows little sensitivity to the terrible plight of the people of Gaza, is very vulnerable to her own casualties, and also understands that it has lost the PR war and consequently many friends around the world during this war. Hamas is also very well aware of this, and especially as Israeli society is hurting as it buries her young fallen soldiers, and consequently Israel could punish the Gazan people even more harshly. Despite all of this, both sides are placing hurdles in the process of reaching a short term humanitarian truce, let alone a more permanent one.
Divisions among the international mediators
To make things worse, divisions among the international mediators has enabled both sides to ignore any pleas to stop the bloodshed. Both sides would like to end the war declaring, if not victory, at least substantial achievements. In the convoluted and twisted logic of war, violence breeds more violence, as none of the sides would like to be perceived at the end of the fighting, as the weaker one, and neither wants to admit that the sacrifices in the battlefield yielded no results. I feel that the majority in the Israeli government seem determined to bring an end to the rocket attacks from across the Gazan border and to destroy all tunnels, especially the ones which lead into Israel. The even more radical elements within the Israeli cabinet would like to remain in Gaza until the collapse of Hamas government altogether, even if the number of casualties will spiral at the risk of tarnishing image of Israel and its moral fabric almost beyond repair. It seems that they are driven by the unsubstantiated belief that the world is inherently anti-Israeli anyway and hence international public opinion should be ignored until Hamas is eradicated and the Palestinian population has “learnt its lesson” for supporting, or at least not resisting, Hamas. Hamas itself, it seems, is almost immune to a genuine truce, as long as its leadership believes that it can fire rockets into Israel, inflict casualties on her and potentially even kidnap Israeli soldiers. They invested almost all of their military and political capital in this war. Without military and/or political gains, such as the removal of the Israeli blockade for instance, it will be very difficult for Hamas’ leadership to justify entering into a military confrontation with a far superior military power to the Gazan population. Hamas may continue to rule Gaza by fear, but by the end of this round of violence it will be militarily weaker, and also politically vulnerable, unless the negotiations for a long term ceasefire result in removing the blockade.
To make an already volatile situation even more explosive, a range of mediators from the U.N. the U.S., Egypt, Turkey and Qatar have entered into the fray of mediation. During the previous outburst of violence between Israel and the Hamas back in November 2012, Egypt mediated a rather rapid ceasefire, but this was a very different Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood won the elections a few months earlier and their representative Mohammad Mursi became the president. He was first elected president of Egypt in the post-Mubarak era and is reported to have had a closer relationship with Hamas. Despite earlier concerns, it seems that Mursi balanced well between his affinity Hamas and Egypt’s interest in maintaining the status quo in the relationship with Israel. With the active support of the United States, a swift end to the bloodshed was reached. Egypt, due to her proximity to the conflict and centrality in the Arab affairs, is still bound to be instrumental in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians especially in Gaza. However, the new Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is publically anti-Muslim Brotherhood and by extension, has strained ties with their offshoot in Gaza, Hamas. Controlling the Rafah crossing into Gaza provides Egypt with enormous leverage over events in Gaza, in a way no other country has. However, the involvement of Qatar and Turkey, which reportedly predominantly support the Hamas, unnerves some interested parties, including Israel and Egypt in my view, and complicates mediation of the conflict even further. The U.S. seems to be out of sorts in the face of the fast deterioration of the situation in Gaza, and sends completely mixed messages about her policy. As always, the U.S. supports Israel to the hilt, but there is a creeping criticism of the methods it is using in fighting against Hamas.
The Obama administration, still licking its wounds from the collapse of the peace process, sent Secretary of State John Kerry to the region. Kerry is once again struggling in achieving his aim, this time in bringing a truce to the fighting in Gaza. He is confronted with a very defiant and dismissive Israeli government towards his efforts to bring a ceasefire. The scramble to negotiate a truce is hindered by two very stubborn sides determined to hurt each other. Furthermore, the international mediators, who conduct uncoordinated efforts to negotiate a ceasefire, are more interested in advancing their own interests than bringing the bloodshed to an end. The success of the negotiations in Cairo on a permanent ceasefire are far from being guaranteed as there is still a huge gap in expectations between Israel and Hamas which needs to be bridged.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.