A new phase in the Gaza tragedy

The present stalemated talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should be resumed.

Najmuddin A Shaikh July 20, 2014

By the evening of July 18, as part of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Gaza, Israeli troops had moved into Gaza ostensibly to destroy the tunnels through which Gaza militants could enter Israel and launch attacks. Its aerial attacks also continued. Two hundred and ninety Gaza residents, three quarters of them civilians, have been killed while more than 2,000 have been injured. With hospitals without electricity and without medical supplies, how many of the injured will succumb is an open question. The number of Gazans seeking shelter in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency camps has doubled in the last two days to 50,000. Rockets continue to be fired by Hamas but on the Israeli side, there has only been one additional fatality — an invading Israeli soldier dying in a clash in Gaza. There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity with foreign ministers from Italy and France rushing to Cairo to push for an acceptance of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, which is being termed the only viable proposal on offer. President Abbas having had what seemed to be inconclusive talks with the Hamas deputy chief and the representative of the Islamic Jihad in Cairo has moved to Turkey to request Prime Minister Erdogan to use his influence with Hamas to move towards a ceasefire. He will probably next visit Qatar with the same objective.

The Security Council meeting on July 18 yielded no result. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, is to start a visit to the region on July 19 with the objective of helping the Israelis and Palestinians to “end the violence and find a way forward”.

All these players, including, most importantly, the United States, talk of the Egyptian proposal as the only solution on offer. President Obama on July 18 spoke to Netanyahu and while supporting Israel’s right to defend itself  “also made clear that the United States and its friends are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent lives”. Kerry has been busy talking to all and sundry in the Middle East and Europe to press for a ceasefire.

However, all this activity has had little effect on the situation on the ground. Israel continues its military operations free of any restrictions.

Gaza, with an area of about 140 square kilometres, has a population of 1.7 million people. One-third of its arable land was bulldozed by Israel in 2001 to create a security zone. This reduced food production in Gaza by about 75,000 tons. Many of the non-refugee population of Gaza sought jobs in Israel, an option that is no longer available. Its fishing industry once employing some 35,000 people has been severely curtailed since Israel restricted fishermen to within six nautical miles of the coast. These are waters in which fish don’t survive since this is where Gaza’s sewage is dumped everyday. Gaza is dependent on food and other import but these are severely restricted by the Israeli blockade and by the restrictions Egypt has placed on its borders since it suspects, probably with good reason, that Hamas has been helping exacerbate problems that Egypt is having with extremists in the Sinai Peninsula.

Hamas had hoped that once it entered into an agreement with President Mahmoud Abbas and had relinquished its right to ask for cabinet posts and had implicitly accepted Abbas’s position on Israel, this blockade would be lifted. Instead, Israel set about systematically sabotaging the viability of this alliance. With the international community’s implicit approval, Israel blocked West Bank bankers from transferring money to pay the salaries of 43,000 people employed by Hamas in Gaza. They have gone without salaries for many months. The abduction of the three Israelis, which triggered the present crisis, provided the pretext for the rearrest of the Hamas people who had been released earlier in a prisoner swap.

If Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh claims that the problem is not the ceasefire but the “situation in Gaza”, he is right. The problem is that at this time, Hamas has virtually no international or regional support and while his demand for relief for the people of Gaza is justified, he is not going to be able to get it in advance of the ceasefire.

Hamas does not want Cairo to be the broker for the ceasefire because President Sisi’s government has made no secret of its dislike for Hamas. While condemning Israel’s excessive use of force and calling for an immediate acceptance without preconditions of the ceasefire proposal, the Egyptian foreign minister also said that “if Hamas had accepted the Egyptian proposal, it could save the lives of at least 40 Palestinians”. Egypt has said that the leaders of all parties could come to Cairo for formal talks but only after the ceasefire proposal had been accepted.

The pressure on Hamas is growing and there seems to be little support for the Hamas position that some of its demands be met as part of the ceasefire agreement. Hopefully by the time this article appears on July 21, there will be some display of flexibility on the part of what seems to be a divided Hamas leadership. While this is uncertain, what is certain is that Israel will wreak further havoc in Gaza and more Gazans will die, be injured and rendered homeless.

What is the way ahead? One proposal that has been mooted seems to offer hope. The alliance between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority should be made valid again and as part of this, the forces of the Palestinian Authority should be given control of Gaza’s borders with Israel and Egypt. Israel will then have no reason to enforce the current strict blockade. Two, the international community must make sure that the restriction on the transfer of funds to Hamas from the West Bank or from Qatar, which has offered to pay the Hamas employees, is removed. Three, the present stalemated talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should be resumed.

Many observers have reminded Israel that a two state solution is in Israel’s interest. It is estimated that Israel with a population of eight million, of whom 1.7 million are Arabs, will find that these Arabs and the 4.4 million currently living in the West Bank and Gaza — may in the “Greater Israel” that extremist Israelis visualise — will have an Arab population that outnumbers the Jews and will make a mockery of the claim that Israel is a Jewish state. This is something that Netanyahu and his colleagues should bear in mind.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 21st, 2014.

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