Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Centre for Global Affairs at NYU, looks into the new development in the Middle East
Although the expected resumption of indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas in Cairo was postponed, it will likely take place in the next few weeks as the two sides appear to seek a new and more sustainable ceasefire.
Should Israel and Hamas achieve their stated objectives – namely, the complete lifting of the Israeli blockade as well the building of sea and airports as demanded by Hamas, against the total demilitarization of Gaza as demanded by Israel – the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, as a whole, will take a dramatically different turn, change the nature of the conflict, and substantially improve the prospect for peace. The question is, will their political circumstances and the reality they face lead to such an outcome?
It should first be noted that while they deny each other’s right to exist, the fact that they are negotiating, albeit indirectly, amounts to a de facto recognition of each other’s reality and certain prerogatives.
Second, contrary to their claims of victory, the last war produced no winners – only losers – and their weaknesses and failures were on full display, forcing them to reassess their plans and objectives for the future.
Israeli intelligence was taken by surprise about how extensive Hamas’ tunnel network was and how they were strategically constructed to attack Israel from the rear. The military assigned untrained, poorly informed, and ill-equipped soldiers to destroy the tunnels.
In fifty days of fighting, the military ran low on munitions and called on the US to come to its rescue while suffering from intense international condemnation for the death of nearly 1,500 Palestinian civilians.
Hamas’ ability to rain nearly 4,600 rockets on Israel sent shockwaves throughout the country, forcing thousands of Israelis to flee to shelters while Hamas continued to fire rockets up to the last minute; it was still left with thousands more that Israeli forces could not destroy.
Hamas did not fare any better. It subjected Gaza to destructive Israeli air raids, far surpassing previous fighting that left nearly half the Strip in ruins along with the destruction of tunnels, on which hundreds of millions of dollars were spent.
While Hamas is claiming victory, it emerged more isolated than ever before and remains vulnerable to Israel’s military incursions and at its mercy to ease the blockade.
In an interview with Egyptian television, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas said: “I don’t delude myself by saying, ‘It was a victory.’ What victory?… For what did we suffer through those 50 days? We had 2,200 fatalities, 10,000 injured, 40,000 homes and facilities and factories destroyed. Tell me, what did we achieve?”
Notwithstanding what both sides have suffered, under the current circumstances, Israel will not meet Hamas’ demands to lift the blockade and allow it to build a sea and airport. Conversely, Hamas will reject Israel’s demands to demilitarize Gaza and surrender its cache of rockets.
That said, is there any prospect that they can still achieve their goals, and under what circumstances? Hamas knows the futility of provoking Israel and the destruction it would incur, and conversely, Israel knows that Hamas is a reality, a grassroots movement, resilient, can sustain pain and pressure, and is there to stay.
There is a strong likelihood, then, that another ceasefire agreement will be reached that would entail concessions by both sides: Israel would ease the blockade provided that PA security personnel be permitted to monitor the border crossings, and UN observers would ensure that all building materials are used for housing and infrastructure.
Although historically reason has eluded Israelis and Palestinians, I believe that the last war just might have awakened both sides to a new bitter reality. Israelis and Palestinians in the know, with whom I spoke, strongly suggest that to prevent another deadly flare-up, a new and longer-lasting ceasefire agreement must not be an end in and of itself.
Since neither can wish the other away and because the status quo is not sustainable, only an agreement that consists of a number of phases over a period of at least three years with the ultimate objective of demilitarizing Gaza and lifting the blockade would work.
That is, built-in reciprocity would allow for confidence-building, provided that both live up to the commitments they make. For example, by destroying a mutually agreed upon number of rockets, Israel would allow the building of a seaport.
The second phase may entail the destruction of another batch of rockets against allowing freer travel to and from Gaza, etc. Each phase will have to be implemented at specific intervals and monitored by an EU commission, supported by the US, to ensure compliance by both sides.
Indeed, as long as Israel undisputedly does not want to reoccupy the Strip and Hamas does not want to see Gaza in ruins time and again, such an agreement will stand the test of time. It will make the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians more substantive and a peace agreement far more plausible than before.
Egypt’s role as the facilitator now and in the future is extremely important as Cairo has a national interest in preventing another Israeli-Hamas war, and also has concerns over the intensifying terrorist activities in the Sinai. Moreover, Cairo wants to keep Hamas at bay and distance it from Iran and Turkey.
There should be no public disclosure about the full extent of the agreement, as both sides do not wish to reveal how far they have gone in one swoop. Indeed, only what will transpire on the ground and how mutually beneficial it is, is what will matter.
Just as critical is the requirement that both sides stop their acrimonious public narratives in order to prepare their citizens for changing their attitudes toward one another, with historic implications.
It should be remembered that the damage inflicted by Israel in the West Bank during the second Intifada in 2000, which destroyed much of what the PA built since 1993, provided a rude awakening to the PA, which realized that the use of force against Israel is futile and counterproductive.
This lesson was not lost in Israel either, which suffered from 117 suicide bombers that killed more than 1,000 Israelis during the same period. This led to a renunciation of violence by the PA and security cooperation between the two sides.
The last Hamas-Israel war should be no less instructive. Notwithstanding the ideological differences between the secular PLO and the religiously-committed Hamas, the latter will inevitably come to the same conclusion as history has shown even religious convictions will eventually adapt to the unshakable reality and inevitable change.
Both reason and reality point to this direction, which neither Israel nor Hamas can ignore without serious and potentially ominous consequences.