Key players in the Middle East are gathering in Cairo this week in search of an agreement that could anchor a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, after a weekend of rising violence.
On the deadliest day since the beginning of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, Israeli airstrikes and naval guns were blamed for a series of civilian casualties – including 11 people in the building where a Hamas official lived – while Palestinian rockets rained on southern Israel and as far north as Tel Aviv.
As regional powers and international organizations prepared to meet in Cairo, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned of a possible ground invasion by Israel and a dangerous widening of the conflict, while vigorously defending the Jewish state’s right to protect itself against rocket attacks. That stand was echoed by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who said the international community holds onto the hope that the two sides can step back from the brink.
In Cairo this week, leaders of a dizzying number of states and organizations will try to hammer out a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that rules the Palestinian Gaza Strip. The Prime Minister of Turkey, the Emir of Qatar and the head of Hamas are to be joined by the United Nations Secretary-General and the head of the Arab League.
There were conflicting reports that a senior representative from Israel arrived on Sunday in the Egyptian capital and met with agents of the Egyptian intelligence service.The leaders assembling in Cairo are hoping to work out a ceasefire that assures both sides that the attacks will stop and lays the groundwork for a lasting calm.
The choice of Cairo for their efforts is deliberate. Those inside and outside Egypt who thought Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a longtime official of the Muslim Brotherhood, would rebuff Israel and embrace Hamas have been sorely disappointed. Mr. Morsi has issued a clear statement: “We don’t want a war now.”
While the Arab Spring brought new Islamic leadership to Egypt, the country’s military intelligence remains the linchpin of any agreement between the Jewish state and Gaza’s Islamist leadership.
That certainly is the view of the other leaders of relatively moderate Islamic states gathered in Cairo. These countries are among those, including Saudi Arabia, that have long advocated region-wide peace with Israel and that place a high value on their relationship with the United States and other Western countries.
As for the warring parties, both Israel and Hamas want the other to desist in its rocket fire and other aggressive acts, but each has set high demands before it will agree to the demands of the other side. And it’s clear from these demands that the old formula of “we’ll keep things quiet if you keep quiet” isn’t good enough anymore.
Basically, Hamas wants a clear guarantee there will be no more Israeli attacks. Last week it thought it had an understanding with Israel that there would be a cessation of recent hostilities between the two sides. Benny Begin, a member of Israel’s powerful inner cabinet, said so himself on Tuesday. But less than 24 hours later, Israel launched a missile that killed Hamas’s military chief, Ahmed Jaabari, as he drove through Gaza.
For its part, Israel wants a comprehensive ceasefire, not just a temporary one. It says it needs a complete end to all rocket and other attacks that have made life nearly unbearable for residents of southern Israel. Significantly, Israel has backed away from the previous goal of toppling Hamas.
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who played a key role in negotiating the release by Hamas of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit last year, has been using his connections with both Hamas and Israeli authorities to draft terms of a possible long-term ceasefire, terms agreed to in principle last week by the Hamas deputy foreign minister, Ghazi Hamad.
In the draft proposal, each country would make a separate undertaking of what it would agree to, signed by Egyptian intelligence and witnessed by the representative of the UN Secretary-General. Such a comprehensive deal isn’t likely to be worked out quickly.
According to Mr. Baskin, the proposed ceasefire would have Hamas agreeing to completely desist from firing on Israel and guarantee that no other group in Gaza fire either. It would also pledge to destroy the tunnels from Sinai into Gaza and heed intelligence warnings about pending attacks, even if they come from Israel. Israel also wants an end to the flow of weapons into Gaza from Sinai but is willing to count on Egypt to guarantee that.
If Hamas and Egypt agree to all this, Mr. Baskin said, Israel will agree to Hamas’s main demands. Those are that Israel desist from all attacks on Gaza and end the siege of Gaza on land and the blockade by sea.
When Hamas insists that Israel carry out no attacks, it means even those attacks near the border and incursions across the border, according to Mr. Baskin. Israel has frequently fired on people in Gaza if they get too close to the fence, insisting on a wide no-man’s land for security purposes.
The key to Israel accepting this demand is Hamas being willing to heed Israeli intelligence warnings, Mr. Baskin said. But Hamas leaders worry that if they agree to that demand, or agree even to police the territory right to the fence, they will be viewed by many in Gaza as collaborating with Israel.
As for the Hamas demand that Israel end the siege, “it would depend on Egypt taking complete control of the tunnels,” Mr. Baskin said, and boosting its presence in Sinai to deal with extremist groups there.
When it comes to ending the naval blockade, Israel could be willing to end this, Mr. Baskin said, provided a suitable maritime security system with international monitors be established.
Mr. Baskin said ceasefire efforts are complicated by the existence of elements within the Hamas military that want Israel to launch a ground offensive. “They want revenge for killing Jaabari [their revered leader],” he explained. “They want to kill some Israeli soldiers and destroy some tanks before this is over.”
This may explain why a senior Israeli official told the Haaretz newspaper Sunday night Israel did not expect a breakthrough in arriving at a ceasefire and preparations for a possible ground offensive were continuing.
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