A Tale of Two Ceasefires

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by Mitchell Plitnick

The two ceasefire proposals aimed at ending the accelerated violence in Gaza and Israel also offer one of the best illustrations of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The circumstances and the content of each proposal demonstrates very well why outside pressure is necessary to end this vexing, seemingly endless struggle and just how differently Israelis and Palestinians view both current events and the conflict as a whole.

Let’s look at the two proposals. Egypt, acting as the United States normally does, worked out the details of its ceasefire idea primarily with Israel. The deal reflects the Israeli and Egyptian agenda: it mostly follows the formula of “quiet for quiet,” essentially bringing back the status quo ante of early June. It offers Hamas a vague promise of future negotiations to address the siege of the Gaza Strip. But this is hardly something Hamas will put stock in. The 2012 ceasefire agreement, which was negotiated by then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a man much friendlier to Hamas than the current Egyptian leadership, also made such a promise and it never came to anything. Finally, Egypt says it is willing to open the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt more widely but only if Hamas allows Palestinian Authority security to police it instead of their own people.

It’s not hard to see why Hamas viewed that offer, and its exclusion from the talks, more like a call to surrender than a ceasefire. Indeed, that’s what it was. The offer was likely made with the expectation that Hamas would refuse it. That is one reason, along with the fact that I don’t see them getting a better deal from continued fighting, that I thought Hamas should have taken it. But it is perfectly understandable that they did not.

Hamas recently confirmed its terms for a ceasefire: Israel should lift the siege it has imposed on the strip for the last seven years, and release all the prisoners it arrested last month during its sweep of the West Bank while the Netanyahu government was keeping the Israeli public and the world from immediately finding out that the three youths who were ostensibly being searching for were already dead. In exchange, Hamas would agree to a ceasefire.

Those terms are undoubtedly unacceptable for Israel, and Egypt for that matter. They won’t because they don’t have to. Each of them, by themselves, is far more powerful militarily than Hamas. Together, they are even more so, and they have the backing of the United States, quite openly. More discreetly, they also have the backing of much of the Arab leadership in Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states, which, with the exception of Qatar, generally despise Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ ideological forebears.

Therefore, Israel and Egypt will follow the most basic rule of international politics: might makes right. They will ignore minor details like peace, security for both Gazans and Israelis, and most of all, international law. They will do this because they can.

But really, what is Hamas demanding? That they be set free from a crippling siege that has remained in full force with only minor and occasional amelioration through ceasefires and flare-ups alike. That seems like a perfectly reasonable demand, an expectation, even, especially since Israel claims that it is no longer an occupying power in Gaza. Inside, that may be true, but Israel controls the airspace, the offshore areas and the overwhelming majority of Gaza’s borders, except for the southern one, which Egypt controls. It permits only limited amounts of supplies into the strip, bars many things like chemicals and building materials entirely and allows almost no exports. According to most international law experts, Israel has the responsibilities of an occupying power proportionate to the control it exerts. Thus, Israel is not responsible for internal policing of Gaza, but it is responsible for the effects of its control — meaning the siege is illegal.

Hamas, and most Palestinians, surely see the demand to lift the siege as a minimal one. Hamas is not, after all, demanding that the entire occupation regime be lifted for a ceasefire to take place, nor that Israel, for example, repair the damage it has done to Gaza’s only power plant or compensate Gaza for the destruction of its airport.

But the majority of Israelis see the siege as a defensive measure. They believe lifting it will enable Hamas to reload with much more and better weapons and then they will strike much harder and might, at that point be able to deliver a real blow to Israel, something far beyond their ability right now. Most Israelis do not see the Egyptian proposal as a Hamas surrender, but rather as a very reasonable return to the status quo ante.

Israelis believe their leaders when they say they are not targeting Gazan civilians, despite the rather conclusive evidence to the contrary (such as bombing an open beach with children playing on it, destroying a hospital with patients in it, bombing the homes of Hamas leaders with their families inside, etc.). Palestinians see the destruction of civilians, homes, and Gaza’s infrastructure as justifying firing rockets at Israel. Israelis see Hamas as willing to sacrifice its own civilians in order to kill Jews. Palestinians see Israel as offering them a choice of being bombed to death relatively quickly or starved to death more slowly.

The point is not whether one view or the other is right or wrong (we all obviously have an opinion on that, myself included). The point is that these are two completely irreconcilable views. When we combine that with the massive imbalance of both political and, especially, military power involved and the sense both sides have that they cannot afford to be seen as letting the “violence of the other” dictate the terms of the ceasefire, we see the impasse. So where does that leave us?

Ultimately, it is more than likely that Israel’s overwhelmingly greater ability to cause death and destruction, along with the fact that Hamas (and Gaza in general) has very few countries willing to stand up for it in the international arena, will force Hamas to accept a deal that closely resembles the one they just rejected. But all that will do is reset the clock to ticking down to the next round.

If there were a genuine desire to find a way to stop this endlessly repeating loop, there would need to be forceful international mediation. Such mediation cannot come from those countries that stand with Israel against Hamas (Egypt, the US) nor those who have the reverse position (Turkey, Qatar). It can only come from an international delegation, either under the auspices of the UN or in the form of a committee from a variety of countries. There would need to be international guarantees and sanctions applied to both sides (and, crucially, actually enforced) for violations of any agreement.

That, of course, is not something Israel would ever accept. It has no reason to sacrifice its impunity, because it has might — militarily, economically and politically — on its side. And as long as that is true, it simply has no good reason to moderate its position. In this regard, it acts like any other country. And the ineffectual Hamas rockets, terrifying though they may be to so many in Israel, are not coming anywhere near giving Israel any incentive to change.

The bottom line: it is the United States, which unconditionally runs interference for Israel in the Security Council and arms Israel while completely ignoring the fact that Israel uses US-made weapons in blatant contravention of US law, that is fueling this fire. It will support Israel in its refusal to allow any other outside party to mediate, and will certainly ensure that Israel retains its impunity. And the US will do this against the better judgment of its president and secretary of state, both of whom are well aware that the security of Israelis and the very lives of Palestinians both depend on ending the 47-year old occupation, lifting the siege of Gaza and allowing the Palestinians to achieve their freedom. Such is the effect of domestic politics in the United States, and it is playing out in blood in the Gaza Strip right now.

Photo: Relatives and friends of the al-Kaware family carry 7 bodies to the mosque during their funeral in Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. The father, a member of the Fatah movement, and his 6 sons were all killed the day before in an Israeli air strike that targeted their home. Credit: AFP/Thomas Coexthomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images/Used under a Creative Commons license

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst. Born in New York City, raised an Orthodox Jew and educated in Yeshiva, Mitchell grew up in an extremist environment that passionately supported the radical Israeli settler movement. His writing has appeared in the Jordan Times, Israel Insider, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, San Francisco Chronicle, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, Outlook, and in a regular column for a time in Tikkun Magazine. He has been interviewed by various outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor and CNBC Asia. Plitnick graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote his thesis on Israeli and Jewish historiography and earned his Masters Degree from the University of Maryland, College Park's School of Public Policy.

6 Comments

  1. @Boomer: in the world of “morality, humanity and justice,” that did the Jews a lot of good historically and, more recently, in the 1930’s and 1940’s!

  2. An excellent analysis, albeit a depressing one. I’d add just one quibble, regarding your observation that Israel has no good reason to moderate its position. In the world of realpolitik that may be true, at least in the short run. In the domain of morality, humanity, and justice, there is good reason indeed. From that perspective, Americans should be concerned about what their unqualified financial, military, and diplomatic support for Israel enables.

  3. In an attempt to tone down the rhetoric, let me pose a few questions to any of the readers and/or Mr. Plitnick — and I ask these in all seriousness in an attempt to gain knowledge:

    Let’s assume for a moment that a negotiation takes place and the Israeli’s give in to Palestinian and international demands such as they did with the Clinton negotiation — in other words, 95% of the Palestinian demands, which I assume most would conclude was a pretty good deal for the Palestinians:.

    1. Given that the most powerful leader the Palestinians ever had, Arafat, couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) sign the agreement, please name the Palestinian leader (or leaders) who, today, could — as well as enforce it?

    2. Given the provisions of the Hamas charter, can you assume that Hamas would acquiesce to a peace accord other than according to the charter’s terms? If yes, what evidence do you have to support such a conclusion?

    3. Given the experience after the Israeli’s, literally, traded Gaza, intact (with infrastructure) and completely free of Israeli’s, supposedly for peace, what does their experience in the aftermath of that augur for the Israeli’s if they make a similar concession in the future? How does that experience build confidence?

    As for “Fred’s” post: you are either totally and completely ignorant of history when you attempt to compare the Palestinian experience in Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazi’s or you are just an idealogue ranting in a poor attempt to make a point. If you expect to be taken seriously, then get a grip and stop being blinded by your ideology!

  4. The Israeli blockade is an act of war. It has been hint on for eight years. The Israelis are heartless and are
    Behaving like the nazis towards
    The Warsaw ghetto. The Jews resisted then. Why should the Palestinians not resist this sadistic Israeli blockade?

  5. We all have opinions. Thank you Mr Plitnick, you do put your self ahead with these posts. I can’t help but believe that there will never be a solution to this situation, regardless. Give an inch, they take a mile. This exercise in hypocrisy on the parts of the Israelis & the U.S. Congress, seems to know no bounds. I wonder, just how many innocent civilians have to die, before an end to the madness is reached?

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