Analysts say Egypt can no longer be an effective mediator for Palestine and that Israel's Gaza offensive is aimed at disrupting Palestinian political unity
The failed Egyptian ceasefire proposal to end fighting between Hamas and Israel reveals Egypt can no longer act as an effective mediator to resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and demonstrates Israel’s desire to end Palestinian political unity, according to observers and local residents.
Hamas has rejected Egypt’s proposed truce, saying they were not involved in discussions and that they found out about it in the media. A statement from their military wing said the deal “was not worth the ink it was written with” due to the absence of conditions desired by Hamas, namely the end of a punishing a seven year long Israeli blockade on Gaza and release of a number of prisoners.
Palestinians in Gaza have responded to the proposal by ridiculing Egypt’s relationship with Israel, which they say is predicated on self-interest.
“Egypt refuses to open the Rafah crossing, even in the most awful of conditions like now, but on the other hand they provide Israel with all the gas they need,” said Hala al-Ilja, a university student in Gaza City. “They do this because Egypt knows Israel is the strong side and we Gazans can’t be profitable for the Egyptians.”
“Their proposal for a ceasefire can’t be called a deal, as a deal should be balanced between two sides and the Egyptians haven’t given us any of our needs,” she added.
Hamas has gained support in Gaza for its stand against Israeli air strikes, with locals saying their demands are reasonable.
“All they [Hamas] are asking for is to lift the siege and allow the Gaza Strip to finally breathe after years of a punishing blockade that has been jointly implemented by Israel and Egypt,” said Maisam Abumorr, a graduate of the Islamic University of Gaza. “Hamas did a great job respecting and implementing the terms of the 2012 truce conditions, even policing other factions and stopping them from firing rockets,” she added.
Others have pointed to the language of Egypt’s proposal as providing evidence of a skewed approach to mediation.
“The text of the proposal refers to ‘exchange of fire between Hamas and Israel’,” said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and commentator. “No Arab League government has ever used that kind of terminology equating the occupier with the occupied.”
“It’s the terminology of the West, the US and Israel, not of an Arab country,” he added.
The terms of the deal proposed by Egypt included provisions for Israel to stop aerial, naval and ground operations against Gaza while promising not to launch a ground offensive or harm any further civilians.
Israel accepted the deal early on Tuesday morning, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that if Hamas “doesn’t accept the ceasefire proposal…Israel will have all the international legitimacy to broaden its military activity [in Gaza] in order to achieve the necessary quiet”.
Analysts say Netanyahu’s statement and Egypt’s lack of engagement with Hamas opens up the possibility of the proposal simply being a ruse to allow for the continued bombardment of Gaza.
“If Egypt didn’t have any contact with Hamas over this proposal, and just put it out there leaving Hamas to say they heard about it through the media, it begins to look like a game to give Israel the space to pave the way for a broader operation in Gaza,” said Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US diplomat. “I don’t know if that’s true, I’m simply saying Netanyahu’s statement makes it possible for people to read the Egyptian initiative in the light that Egypt helped Israel build legitimacy for a broader operation in Gaza.”
“It’s not good, politically, for Egypt to be seen this way.”
Israeli air strikes have certainly been stepped up in Gaza over the course of Tuesday and while casualty numbers have slowed, the death toll now stands at 194, one local told MEE “today has been the most violent since the beginning of the war, they are bombing the hell out of Gaza”.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has urged Hamas to accept the Egyptian proposal to end the violence, however, Dunne says there can be little hope for Egypt to broker a deal ending this crisis.
“Egypt cannot mediate with Hamas,” she said. “Egypt still has to be part of any ceasefire talks because it has something Hamas wants, which is access to the outside world through Rafah. Egypt is not irrelevant to this situation but they are more of a party to the problem than a mediator.”
“Even under Mubarak Cairo was seen by the Palestinians as even handed enough that it could broker agreements between Hamas and the PLO, as well as with Israel, but now it is not seen that way anymore by Hamas because of what has transpired with the Brotherhood in Egypt,” she added.
It should come as little surprise that Hamas are ambivalent to the idea of Egypt as a mediator, given that just last week a senior official from the group told MEE that they would only accept Turkey or Qatar as an interlocutor with Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas travelled to Ankara on Monday, with the rumoured aim of encouraging a Turkish diplomatic initiative to end the crisis in Gaza. Little is known about the role being played by Turkey, although some analysts say Israel may look beyond poor diplomatic ties with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in order to find a ceasefire.
“Israel is open to Qatar and Turkey’s involvement because it is in a crisis,” said Ibrahim Sharqieh, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They can’t just continue to bomb Gaza forever and they want to have some gains out of this,” he added.
The chances of Turkish mediation appeared to diminish today, however, as Erdogan gave a speech slamming Israel’s Gaza offensive.
Reuters quote him as saying "no tyranny is everlasting, sooner or later every tyrant has to pay the price…This tyranny will not remain unaccounted for. With utter disregard for international law, Israel continues to terrorise the region, and no country but us tells it to stop.”
With little hope of revival for the Egyptian proposal, and seemingly little progress made by either Turkish or Qatari efforts, there appears no imminent breakthrough to end hostilities between Israel and Hamas.
Israel desires an end to Palestinian unity?
In Tel Aviv the rhetoric has even been stepped by some in the government, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman repeating his belief on Tuesday that “Israel must go all the way” and control “all of the Gaza Strip”. He opposes any ceasefire agreement, which he says is “a tacit agreement that Hamas [will] continue to build up its power”.
While this has caused alarm the violence could intensify even further, analysts have been swift to play down Lieberman’s comments as politicking.
“There isn’t huge support for Lieberman, he is playing politics,” said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Advancing Arab-British Understanding. “He will say the only way is to wipe out Hamas but you can’t do that – it’s a political movement, not a militia.”
“We have to see comments made by Lieberman as political posturing, an attempt to appear more hard-line and exposing Netanyahu as weak,” he said.
Beyond the tough words in Israel’s parliament the military offensive is continuing in Gaza and Doyle believes the aim of the attacks is more to do with ending the Palestinian unity government than punishing Hamas, who they hold responsible for the recent deaths of three teenage Israeli settlers.
“Israeli government strategy is difficult to define, as it is a coalition containing differing views, but ultimately they want to push settlement expansion in the West Bank, which is made easier when there is Palestinian political disunity,” he said. “It is the Likud strategy to keep Gaza separate from the West Bank and whether this is a ceasefire or not, they will want to keep tensions brewing in order to weaken the Palestinian movement.”
“Whoever carried out the settler kidnapping, and no one knows who did it at the moment, it appears they wanted to wipe out the [unity] deal. It has seemingly worked by creating an Israeli escalation that Hamas was pushed to respond against – creating a crisis that has almost certainly finished the deal,” he added.
There certainly appears to be pressure on Palestinian political unity, after Health Minister Jawad Awad cancelled a trip to Gaza City’s Shifa hospital on Tuesday after being confronted by angry protesters as he arrived from Egypt, officials told AFP.
Witnesses said protesters threw shoes and eggs at Awad’s car as he entered Gaza through the Rafah border crossing, with officials saying he left shortly afterwards.
People are angry it has taken the minister eight days to visit Gaza, since the Israeli bombing campaign began.
“Gaza has been bombed, and Gaza has been destroyed, and now he comes to visit?” protester Ahmed Murtaja told AFP. “We don’t this visit and all the Palestinian people are opposed to it and reject it,” he added.
Palestinian journalist Kuttab, however, retains hope the unity deal can hold strong, providing certain agreements can be put in place.
“The unity deal has been shaken up but the government is still standing,” he said. “The onus is more on Hamas than Fatah at this point, what Hamas decides to do is the most serious issue. My expectation is that the 2005 agreement regarding the border points with Gaza, especially Rafah, will be renewed requiring Palestinian presidential guards from Ramallah and European advisors to be at the crossing point with Egypt.”
“That would be a significant development and the big question then would be if elections are still going to take place within six months, as planned,” he added.