TEL AVIV/NEW DELHI – The savage fighting between Israel and Hamas has been escalating in the Gaza Strip, previous ceasefire efforts have taken on elements of farce, and bravado had ruled the public discourse. But even through the fog of war, a few endgame scenarios can nonetheless be glimpsed.
Hours past midnight Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was still working the phones, trying to come up with a ceasefire plan to stop the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip. He’d been pushing for a deal all day, in fact, for more than a week, and nailing down a final agreement was proving elusive.
Finally, less than an hour after all sides signed off on the precise and technical wording for a 72-hour truce, Kerry issued a statement and called a 3:30 a.m. Friday press conference to seal the deal before any party could back out.
It was the kind of announcement that ricocheted around the world: announced simultaneously at U.N. headquarters in New York and in New Delhi, where Kerry was meeting with Indian officials; drawing in regional players from Turkey to Egypt to Qatar; and finally converging on the tiny strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea where Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas have fought an all-out war over the last three weeks.
More than 1,400 Palestinians and nearly 60 Israelis have been killed since the fighting began July 8.
Kerry and Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, shepherded a ceasefire that began at 8 a.m. local time Friday in Gaza and Israel. Negotiations over the underlying disputes between Israel and Hamas, including tunnels into Israel and easing border restrictions for Palestinians, were to begin immediately in Cairo, potentially as early as Friday, or as soon as delegations can get there.
Both Israel and Hamas have agreed to end all aggressive operations and conduct only defensive missions to protect their people. For Israel, that means troops on the ground in the Gaza Strip can continue to destroy the tunnels, but only those that are behind their defensive lines and which lead into Israel.
At the same time, Palestinians in Gaza will be able to receive food, medicine and humanitarian assistance, bury their dead, treat the wounded and travel to their homes. The time also will be used to make repairs to water and energy systems.
Israeli and Palestinian delegations were expected to travel immediately to Cairo for talks moderated by the Egyptian government. It was not clear which other nations will be attending the talks, and aides to Kerry said Egypt will ultimately decide who will participate.
It is, however, expected that members of Hamas will be part of the Palestinian delegation named by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, although Egypt will have to serve as a go-between for the militants and Israel. Both the U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization and will not directly deal with the militant group.
For the moment, the deadlock preventing a long-term resolution is well-entrenched: As long as the crippling blockade of Gaza remains in place, Hamas says it will continue firing rockets at Israel — terrifying but mostly ineffectual, thanks to the “Iron Dome” defense system. Israel says the blockade must stay to stop a terrorist government from importing yet more weapons.
While it is too early to say how all this will end, quiet diplomacy continues. There also is a growing sense that it cannot go on much longer, but then again, it might.
Here are some ways it could play out:
Israel declares victory
If you listen carefully, Israeli leaders generally describe the ground operation in the Gaza Strip as intended to destroy the Hamas-built tunnels leading into Israel, almost certainly for purposes of attack.
The military says it has found and is destroying more than 20 tunnels and believes there are a few more. Once that job is done, Israel could well pull out and try to declare victory or even a unilateral ceasefire. The hope would be that the respite from the devastation visited on Gaza will compel Hamas to think again and quietly accept a return to the way it was: no rocket fire on Israel; no airstrikes and shelling of Gaza. This probably will not work. Hamas has put Gazans through so much that they certainly feel they must have something to show for their efforts in the form of an easing of the blockade. Rocket fire will continue and the hostilities would swiftly resume.
Despite huge reservations, Israel may just end up reoccupying the strip, even at the cost of hundreds of soldiers and then being saddled with nearly 2 million Gazans to rule. If the situation becomes bad enough, more fantastical scenarios suggest themselves: perhaps even a NATO force to pacify and rebuild the traumatized strip. It probably will not be necessary. Hamas will run out of rockets eventually. But for now, it’s believed to have thousands more, Israel will continue to strike back, and the destruction will be harrowing for weeks.
The border with Egypt
Hamas wants an end to the blockade that was imposed by Israel after the militants won the 2006 Palestinian parliament election, were sidelined by Abbas, and then seized the Gaza Strip in 2007.
Some minor things are conceivable, like a small extension of the rights of fishermen to venture out to sea. But Israel will not allow true sea access or an airport as long as Hamas controls the strip. The concern is that even bigger rockets and weapons will stream in. Israel also will not soon open its borders to Gazans, remembering too well the suicide bombings of a decade ago.
There is one plausible way to greatly ease the siege: Open the southern border near the town of Rafah leading to Egypt, and put the Gaza side not under the control of Hamas but under the Palestinian Authority. Cairo has been extremely cool to the idea of opening the frontier but not to the PA taking it over, in line with the tough Egypt-first policy of new President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Egypt seems little inclined to help Hamas against Israel, views the Gaza Strip as someone else’s problem, and fears Gaza’s militants trickling in and compounding its own jihadi problems in the Sinai Peninsula. But the PA on the border could be spun as a win for everyone: Hamas broke the siege; the PA is back in business in the strip; Israel didn’t give up much under fire; the Gazans feel relief; and Egypt is the hero. When the dust finally settles, don’t be surprised if this is the face-saving way out.
The Palestinian Authority
Somehow forgotten in the current discourse is that the blockade was imposed after the Hamas takeover. It was probably intended both to be punitive — an incentive to the people to rebel, which has proven impractical under the militants — and to prevent Hamas from arming further.
At this point, it is mainly about this latter goal of reining in Hamas. Alternatively, Hamas could call the world’s bluff by accepting the conditions presented to it by the world community: recognize Israel, adhere to previous agreements, renounce violence. Acquiescence here would also probably eliminate the blockade. But no one expects Hamas to do this; it would cease to be Hamas. Either way, the principle’s the same: No Hamas — no blockade.
West Bank-based Palestinian leader Abbas and Hamas signed a “unity government” deal two months ago that would have actually achieved this on paper — but few seriously expected Hamas to give up its control of Gaza. Israel fought vehemently against the deal, lobbying the world to shun even Abbas — part of a series of events that culminated in the current fight. Essentially the “unity government” was stillborn — but the war could give the arrangement new and genuine life, especially if this comes with serious relief on the blockade. Hamas would find it especially hard to oppose this if major financial incentives were added, like billions in aid from Persian Gulf nations and the West, conditioned on the PA being in charge. After all, the support it finds among ordinary Gazans is about improving life for the people, not fighting Israel to the death. Last week, both the German and French foreign ministers said re-involving the PA in the administration of Gaza is the only way to guarantee a long-term ceasefire. Given Hamas’ relative unpopularity in the region at the moment, and its money crunch, it’s not inconceivable.
A challenge for Israel, therefore: It will have to go along with such a game-changing ambitions to a degree. But what if militants from an Abbas-run Gaza still find a way to fire rockets? It may actually rue the day Hamas melted away, removing with it Israel’s near-impunity to hit back as hard as the past month has seen.