by Mitchell Plitnick
According to reports, Egypt has given both Israel and Hamas a take-it-or-leave-it plan for ending the current round of violence. It bears examination, not only for its intrinsic worth, but also for the implications it holds. As of this writing, Hamas has indicated it does not find the proposal “sufficient” in addressing their demands, and Israel has yet to respond directly. As reported:
- Israel will halt all attacks on Gaza — by land, air or sea.
- All Palestinian factions in Gaza will stop all attacks against Israel by land, air or sea, and will stop the construction of tunnels from Gaza into Israel.
- The passage of people and goods will be allowed in order to rebuild Gaza. The transfer of goods between Gaza and the West Bank will be permitted, according to principles that will be determined between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
- Israeli authorities will coordinate with the PA all issues of funds related to Gaza and its reconstruction. (This refers to paying government employees in Gaza, a major sticking point between Fatah and Hamas)
- The buffer zones along the security fence in the northern and eastern Gaza Strip will be eliminated and PA forces in those areas will be deployed beginning January 1, 2015. This will be conducted in several steps: At first the buffer zone will be reduced to 300 meters from the border, then 100 meters and finally the removal of the buffer zone altogether with the deployment of PA troops.
- The fishing zone off the Gaza coast will immediately be extended to 6 miles, and will be gradually extended to 12 miles, in coordination between Israel and the PA.
- Israel will assist the PA in rebuilding infrastructure destroyed in Gaza, and will assist in providing basic necessities for those Gaza residents who were forced to flee their homes due to the fighting. Israel will provide medical aid to the wounded, and will expedite the transfer of humanitarian aid and food through the crossings.
- The PA, in coordination with Israel and international aid groups, will provide the basic products needed to rebuild Gaza, according to a predetermined schedule that will allow those driven from their homes to return as soon as possible.
- Egypt implores the international community to provide swift humanitarian and monetary assistance for Gaza’s reconstruction, according to a set schedule.
- Upon the stabilization of the ceasefire and the return to normal life in Gaza, the sides will conclude their indirect negotiations in Cairo within a month after signing the deal. The exchange of prisoners and bodies will also be discussed at that time.
- The possibility of constructing an airport and sea port in Gaza will be considered in accordance with the Oslo accords and other previous agreements.
At first glance, one might think that Israel would reject these terms. Almost none of Israel’s demands are included. Hamas, and the other Palestinian factions in Gaza, would not be disarmed, contrary to Netanyahu’s latest goal, which was not on the table when the fighting began (remember when Bibi was saying that all he wanted was “quiet for quiet”). And yet, while Israel certainly has shown no enthusiasm about this offer, it has not dismissed it either.
Israel is not, of course, going to accept the Egyptian terms, but its lack of outrage over what it certainly views as a one-sided deal speaks volumes. The fact that first Spain, then the United Kingdom and finally the United States all put temporary brakes on their usually consistent flows of arms to Israel was a serious message. And that message was heard loud and clear in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Make no mistake: Spain, the UK, and most certainly the US will all resume the normal flow of weapons to Israel soon enough. The reviews and procedural changes that the countries made will not impede that flow and they certainly are not affecting Israel’s military capabilities either now or in the future. That wasn’t the point.
The point was to send Israel a message. That message was that the excesses of the current right-wing government in refusing peace, ignoring the boiling crises in the Occupied Territories, needlessly torturing Gaza and now finally killing far more civilians than could be explained away was more than the West was prepared to tolerate. That message coming from Spain meant little. Coming from London, it meant more. Coming from Washington, it set off alarm bells in Israel.
So, Israel will not reject the offer out of hand, but Netanyahu is counting on the belief that Washington will not press him to accept these terms. He may be right about that; the terms do not offer Israel anything Washington will see as balancing the relief it grants Gaza. But something similar to this arrangement could well be on the horizon.
This is the case because both the Obama administration and the Egyptian government recognize this proposal for what it is: a death sentence for Hamas as a resistance movement in control of territory. Although the wording above was edited for space in this piece, the absence of not only any mention but any implied role for Hamas in Gaza’s immediate future was just as stark in the reported wording. The deal is intended to bring the people of Gaza relief while handing over rule of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority.
Of course, if Netanyahu was really interested in the “quiet” he routinely insists on, he would accept this deal. To be fair, though, if he did so, his right-wing flank would revolt and so would much of the center and even the center-left that has been backing him throughout this misadventure. That fact, however, only strengthens the crucial point that the Israeli right-wing, which is in firm control of the country and will be even more so if Netanyahu’s current government falls, is much more afraid of a unified Palestinian body politic than it is of Hamas.
The Islamist resistance group is in a difficult position with this Egyptian offer. Obviously Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has a passionate hate for Hamas, and they are well aware of that. But here he has been very clever; the deal is virtually everything Hamas has been demanding: the opening of border crossings, the easing of offshore restrictions, the elimination of the so-called “buffer zones” inside Gaza, and reconstruction in the wake of the recent destruction. Even the more ambitious demands of a seaport and airport are at least acknowledged. But it all happens between Israel and the PA, not in any kind of coordination, much less partnership, with Hamas.
In effect, this means that Hamas will cede control of Gaza to the PA. This was, of course, the ostensible goal of forming a unity government with the PA in the spring. But things have changed since then. The PA’s cooperation with Israel during the Gaza fighting has shattered what little faith Palestinians had and whatever shred of trust Hamas might have had in Mahmoud Abbas’ “government.” Hamas cannot possibly be certain that if they do cede power they will not suffer a fate similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in al-Sisi’s Egypt.
Even if that scenario doesn’t materialize, there is no guarantee elections will be held any time soon, and so the technocratic PA, still under control of Mahmoud Abbas, will continue to run both the West Bank and Gaza. What Egypt has done is to include in that possible future the chance for Gazans to finally see the end of the siege, and to start rebuilding their infrastructure and growing their economy.
No doubt, the PA, as well as Egypt and the United States are very interested in that idea. You would think Israel would be as well, as this is the best path to obtaining the “quiet” Netanyahu claims this was all about. But his government loathes the idea of a PA with even the slightest shred of power.
If Abbas is able to convince Hamas to agree to something like this (a very big “if”), he should at once tell Israel that he will not pursue war crimes charges in the international legal system if the Israelis support the move. That could almost certainly buy Netanyahu off, despite his bluster that war crimes charges are meaningless. They aren’t, and he’s quite desperate to prevent them from being leveled at anyone inside Israel, especially himself.
The fly in the ointment for Abbas, al-Sisi, and the Obama administration is that, even if the terms of the proposal don’t spell it out, there is an assumption that a PA government in Gaza would move to disarm Hamas and the other factions. The goal would be to reduce them to the much less powerful position they hold in the West Bank. That was tried before, in 2007, and the Fatah forces were routed. There is no reason to believe they would not suffer a far worse defeat now, as many of their security people would be even more reluctant to take up arms against the force that just stood up to Israel. Abbas would have to come to some sort of understanding with Hamas in Gaza, which won’t sit well in Washington and Cairo.
Yet this sort of deal is exactly the kind that makes sense in terms of relief for the Palestinians. It also gives Israel a commitment to quiet and to Hamas’ refraining from building a new tunnel network. International monitors could certainly be put in place to ensure such things. It could work. But it’s not likely that Netanyahu will allow it, Hamas will just give up everything it has, or that Abbas has enough legitimacy in Gaza to take over there.
As so often happens, then, while nothing can be worked out by those with some power, the Palestinian people will continue to suffer the most — especially in Gaza.
Photo: Palestinian residents walk beside a damaged UN school at the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip after the area was hit by Israeli shelling on 30 July 2014.