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Truce in Gaza: “Reactive policies push leaders down a slippery slope”
Truce in Gaza: “Reactive policies push leaders down a slippery slope”
Another War: Views from Israel/Palestine
Another War: Views from Israel/Palestine

Truce in Gaza: “Reactive policies push leaders down a slippery slope”

Originally published in Le Monde

A 12-hour truce between Israel and Hamas came into effect Saturday 26 July at 8am in the Gaza Strip, where over 900 Palestinians have died since the start of the Israeli offensive 19 days ago. International Crisis Group (ICG) Senior Analyst Ofer Zalzberg examines the different positions of the conflict’s actors on a potential ceasefire.

[By today, 30 July, over 1,000 Palestinians and over 45 Israelis have been killed and negotiations over potential ceasefires have continued.]

Is the prolonged ground offensive supported by the Israeli political elite and public opinion?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon decided to launch this ground operation [after the aerial campaign] because Hamas started using its tunnels to attack Israeli communities near Gaza. That provoked a radical change in Israeli public opinion and convinced Netanyahu to initiate the ground offensive.

The Israeli public is now opposing the “quiet for quiet” paradigm, where Israel would end its military offensive in exchange for Palestinian armed groups halting their rocket attacks. It deems it necessary to deal with the tunnel threat once and for all. The defence minister expected the mission to take two to three days. Today, the government speaks more about one to two weeks. The leaders operate reactively and find themselves, step by step, going down a slippery slope.

If it was decided to extend the military operation, Benjamin Netanyahu would have to provide explanations. He already said the issue with Hamas’s arsenal could not be solved with a ceasefire. Israeli public opinion must decide whether it trusts him to accept a partial ceasefire which means then having confidence that he will tackle the remaining issues, or whether it would rather see a temporary reoccupation of Gaza. This second option is definitely not the one Netanyahu favours.

Criticisms are emerging in Israel surrounding the downplaying of the tunnel threat by the political and military leaders these past couple of years. What do you think?

The chosen policy has been to let armed groups develop their military capacities, including the tunnel infrastructure, so long as they were not using them. It is a satisfactory approach in the short term, but a terrible strategy in the long run. Like everywhere else, political leaders in Israel  think about being re-elected, and are trying to extend the time they are in power. Dealing with the deep roots of this issue was simply deemed too costly for any leader to consider; they would not be supported by public opinion nor backed by the political and military elites. Now that the military operation is underway and as the breadth of the tunnel infrastructure comes to light, the dynamics are much different.

Is Prime Minister Netanyahu really in favour of a ceasefire and of a political resolution of the conflict?

I continue to think he really did not want to go in. The Israeli leadership has possibly made two mistakes in its assessment. First, it under-estimated the importance of the salary crisis [in line with the intra-Palestinian reconciliation agreement signed on 23 April, by which Hamas gave back the authority over the enclave to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Islamist movement requested the PA pay the salaries of over 40,000 Gaza employees]. It wrongly assumed Hamas was interested in reinstalling a government in Gaza.

Second, the Egyptian president had pushed for the use of force against Hamas by Israel, due to his animosity toward the Islamist movement and its sponsor, the Muslim Brotherhood. Because Israel seeks a strong alliance with Egypt, for other unrelated reasons, it lets it have some control of the situation. Additionally, many issues surrounding a potential agreement cannot be solved without Egypt, and Cairo does not seem to consider reaching such an agreement an urgent need.

What are the positions on the Palestinian side?

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas feels a certain pressure as Hamas is gaining in popularity at the expense of his own party, Fatah. He must show that he has a certain role to play in the crisis. His position thus evolved from a simple backing of the Egyptian initiative to a convergence with Hamas’s position and demands [regarding the substance of a ceasefire agreement]. Within Hamas, the main disagreement now centres on the international guarantees attached to a permanent agreement.

The leaders in exile, such as the political bureau chief Khaled Mashal and his deputy Moussa Abu Marzouk, see the U.S. as the guarantor of an agreement. This is interesting because for years they have criticised the relationship between Fatah and the Americans. They now seek a way to break their isolation and find mechanisms for dialogue. [Hamas is on the U.S. and EU lists of designated terrorist organisations, ed.]

The leaders in Gaza oppose this and want the guarantees for the implementation of the ceasefire to be embedded in the ceasefire itself. Additionally, they are unequivocally rejecting a demilitarisation. Hamas is willing to accept a ten-year truce in exchange for major economic concessions. But keeping its weapons would allow it to maintain pressure on Israel so that it respects that truce. Moreover, if Khaled Mashal lowers his demands, pressured by the Qatari emir, he might not be followed by the leaders in Gaza.

Calls for the demilitarisation of armed groups in the Gaza Strip are multiplying in Israel. The EU itself made a statement to that effect. What are the proposed plans and how feasible are they?

There have, in fact, been many plans put forward, as much by advocates of the two-state solution as by its opponents. In mid-July, Shaul Mofaz, head of the centre-right Kadima party, introduced to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee a plan for economic development in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the demilitarisation of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups. The former director of Israel’s general security service (Shin Bet), Yuval Diskin, recently put forward a similar plan. Likud’s MK Yisrael Katz also presented a plan for Gaza disengagement and economic development, based on the creation of an internationally supervised artificial island off the coast of Gaza.

These proposals have little chance of success. They are based on a false premise, one that reduces the issue to an essentially economic one. Instead, Hamas wants to improve its political standing, using the support it currently enjoys from the civilian population. Moreover, for the Islamist movement the issue is not only obtaining the end of the blockade and an economic development plan for Gaza, but also ending the Israeli occupation in both Gaza and the West Bank. These proposals, however, do not include the West Bank.

Their implementation would require Israel to fully support the creation of a viable Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for demilitarisation. Netanyahu is far from supporting this.