Playing with ceasefires
So now we know. The Egyptian ceasefire initiative was neither an initiative - in the sense that anyone had consulted one of the combatants - nor was it Egyptian. According to the Arabi21 website, the initiative was concocted by the Israelis and Tony Blair. Further, it was published, against US wishes, to stymie a rival proposal being hammered out by Qatar.
The initiative in fact marked not the revival of Egypt's historic role as a mediator in Palestine but the death of it. Whatever is happening in a hotel in Cairo right now, with both Israeli and Hamas delegations in it, the real talking is not taking place there, but in Qatar and Turkey.
This is in itself a new departure, as is Hamas' decision to refuse to regard Egypt as a negotiator. Since the Oslo accords, Egypt had a monopoly. The Palestine file held by the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) was its most precious asset, the crown jewels of Egypt's regional security policy. This was maintained come rain or shine, in dictatorship or democracy. Mubarak kept faith with it, as did Mohamed Morsi.
This was the channel through which Israel and Hamas talked, through which ceasefires were negotiated, and prisoners swapped. It was a mechanism which elevated Egypt to the position of Middle East power broker, and it was the means by which Egypt obtained influence and funds from both sides. Irrespective of what Mubarak was doing to the Muslim Brotherhood at home, the GID kept channels open to the Ikwan's brothers in Hamas. As a military dictator, Mubarak did his best to contain the Brotherhood in Egypt, but as a pragmatist he dealt with and talked to Hamas in Gaza.
Today, all of that has been discarded and it is largely, although not entirely, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's doing. Gazans blame Israel and its western sponsors, the EU and US, for the siege, but in truth the siege is more brutally applied on the Egyptian side of the border. The year since Mohamed Morsi was overthrown has been the worst Gaza has experienced thanks to Egypt's security cooperation with Israel and its zeal in blowing up the tunnels and clearing a cordon sanitaire along the border through the border town of Rafah.
But Egypt's estrangement from Gaza is also a function of its membership of the international club it has joined. Clearly what we now see in both war and peace in the Middle East is the emergence of three rival regional blocks.
There is the counter-revolutionary club of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt, to which Israel, the US and the EU find themselves attracted by tradition and default. This group sees democracy in the Arab world as a mortal enemy, particularly when power falls into Islamist hands. The more their populations are politically suppressed, the more vulnerable their rulers feel to the winds of political enfranchisement blowing outside.
There is also the club of Turkey, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco who are all friendly to, and fund, political Islamist movements. And then there is Iran and Hezbollah, the Shia block. All three are competing for the top prize - Palestine.
As the weapon of choice in this internecine Gulf conflict is unlimited sums of money, the rivalry between three neighbouring states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar feeds any number of proxy conflicts - in Syria, where the Saudis funded ISIS, in Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and not least Egypt itself. Hence one motivation for Egypt to announce a ceasefire initiative was to prevent Qatar from publishing a rival one.
This is clearly a more complex environment for negotiating peace between Hamas and Israel than before, because the environment itself is so competitive. Countries that pose as neutral are anything but.
Netanyahu's agenda in launching the attack on Gaza was to destroy the unity government Hamas had just entered into with Mahmoud Abbas. The UAE, however, is more interested in replacing Hamas in Gaza with the Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, a former CIA and British intelligence asset. The UAE houses, funds and controls Dahlan.
With the prospect that Abbas may increasingly be tempted to bow out a defeated and old man, Dahlan is this camp's candidate for assuming the Fatah leadership. The regional intrigue involved in arranging a ceasefire is also about the calculation of who stands to gain, and to lose, when the music stops.
Hamas, on the other hand, has made its own calculations. They claim they had nothing to do with the kidnap of the three settler youths (an act which, had Hamas leadership in Gaza or Doha sanctioned it, would have destroyed the very unity government they were set on maintaining). They also assert that the Israelis knew the youths were dead soon after they were kidnapped, and that Netanyahu used the fake manhunt as a cover for the mass re-arrest of Hamas political and military prisoners released after the last ceasefire.
Netanyahu was acting to degrade Palestinian unity as much as he was Hamas' part in it. His motivation in launching the crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank and the bombing campaign in Gaza was more political than it was military.
Hamas therefore will seek a ceasefire which does more than settle for the status quo ante. They not only want a mechanism that will return their prisoners but one which will guarantee them a means by which Gaza can be supplied independently. They know they can no longer trust Egypt to do that. The demand for a seaport is considered make-believe in Israel but a Palestinian presence on the land borders guaranteeing they stay open, may not be in the realm of fantasy.
Hamas is bolstered by the fact that it is seen to be standing up to Israel. The choice when this war started was fight now to lift the siege, or fight later. Hamas chose the former. It has been a popular decision on the Palestinian and Arab street who see the torch of resistance once more being held aloft by a small, poor and besieged community. Not for the first time in this conflict, Gaza has proved to be the cutting edge of resistance.
The pressure is thus consequently on Israel, the militarily vastly superior side. The population of the northern neighbourhoods of Gaza like Beit Layiya have largely defied the message of the automatic telephone calls and leaflets and have stayed put. This will make even a limited Israeli incursion into northern Gaza extremely bloody.
Israel's traditionally pragmatic and more realistic military and security establishment must now be telling Netanyahu what a mess this operation will become if he persists.
Hamas may be totally out gunned. It may too misjudge Israeli psychology, as Israel misjudges Palestinian minds, but Hamas is acting with the confidence that it can secure a better deal.
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian, from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo credit: Gaza may be feeling the pain, but Hamas is confident it can get a better deal (AA)
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