Gaza Truce Shows Signs of Holding, for Now

5 MINS READAug 29, 2014 | 18:09 GMT
Gaza Cease-Fire
Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal holds a press conference in Doha on Aug. 28.

After at least eight temporary cease-fires and 50 days of conflict, Operation Protective Edge appears to have come to an end with an Aug. 26 open-ended cease-fire. The terms are similar to those of the agreements that ended Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Several important issues, especially Israeli demands to demilitarize the Gaza Strip, remain unaddressed, and negotiations will continue into the coming months, likely with few substantial breakthroughs.

Key differences suggest a new status quo on the ground in the Gaza Strip. Israel has indicated it is willing to accept Palestinian Authority administration of the Gaza Strip, so long as it is closely monitored by Egyptian and Israeli security services. Hamas and Fatah will now be able to restart negotiations on a unity government. The subordination of Hamas under the more moderate Fatah party creates a political structure favorable to stability — and therefore to Israeli interests — and a stronger peace deal. Ultimately, this new agreement is not a huge change, but the Israelis can accept it for now with the comfort that the Palestinian Authority will be more moderate. Israel knows that demilitarizing the Gaza Strip is an elusive goal, but the new Palestinian dynamics will limit Hamas' influence within the Gaza Strip and make the renewed cease-fire sustainable, at least for the short term. For Hamas' part, it can pursue its unity government, which ensures its survival. The cease-fire will work as a temporary solution but will not end the recurring pattern of Israel-Gaza violence.

Since negotiators signed the cease-fire agreement, no rockets have been launched from within the Gaza Strip, and Israeli airstrikes have halted. The agreement grants several key Palestinian demands. The terms will re-extend Gaza's permitted fishing zone from 5 to 10 kilometers (3 to 6 miles) off the coast, something that is essential because fish stocks are low near the shoreline and the industry is an important component of Gaza's economy. Even more important, Israeli negotiators have agreed to immediately ease restrictions on the two main Israel-Gaza border crossings: Erez in the north and Karni in the east. Israel will now allow the passage of aid, medical supplies, food and construction materials to rebuild Gaza's infrastructure.

The two sides will reconvene in one month to discuss a number of outstanding demands. These include Hamas' request for a new airport to replace Yasser Arafat International Airport, which was destroyed by Israeli forces in 2001 at the start of the second intifada. Palestinian leadership has also asked for a seaport, following up on a proposal originally made in the 1993 Oslo 1 Accord. In addition, the delegation has demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many arrested in Israeli raids in the West Bank during the early stages of the conflict.

For their part, Israeli authorities seek to engage in a program to demilitarize the Gaza Strip, a program that would require Gaza militant groups to relinquish rocket stockpiles and to not rearm themselves. The Israelis have also requested the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed by Palestinian militants.

Egypt's Role in Negotiations

The negotiations and cease-fire agreement have reinforced Egypt's traditional role as the arbiter in the Gaza Strip, despite Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's tense relations with Hamas following the 2013 ouster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood regime. Qatar and Turkey attempted to supplant Egypt as the intermediary in negotiations by appealing to their stronger ties to Hamas. However, both failed. Egypt maintains its influence because of its shared border with Gaza and its jurisdiction over the Rafah crossing. Because it has been involved with negotiations in the past, Cairo enjoys an established working relationship with senior Hamas leadership. It also has an existing peace agreement with Israel through the Camp David Accords, making it the ideal mediator.

Israel prefers that Egypt mediate negotiations. Cairo's current tense relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas mean that the al-Sisi regime has a shared interest in limiting Hamas' militant capabilities. This contrasts with the situation during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 when Israel was uneasy about its reliance on the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo, which had close Hamas ties and showed questionable commitment to the Camp David Accords.

A Different Political Climate

The Palestinian political climate has changed since the 2012 negotiations to end Operation Pillar of Defense. In 2012, Hamas operated outside the umbrella of the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas' more moderate Fatah party, which was Hamas' historical rival. Hamas retained full control of the Gaza Strip, while the Palestinian Authority and Fatah were contained in the West Bank. The 2012 talks reflected this balance of power, and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority avoided a direct role in negotiations, making a peace deal more difficult and weakening Hamas. Hamas, however, joined the Palestinian Authority in June, and Fatah has since served as a moderating influence on the group, limiting its power and strengthening the current cease-fire.

Israel had hoped that Operation Protective Edge would drive a wedge between the Palestinian factions, but Fatah and Hamas have only moved closer. Abbas has not only supported Hamas' military resistance but, unlike the Palestinian Authority leaders in 2012, has participated directly in negotiations. The unification process is in its early stages and unresolved issues remain, but the process will probably continue. Although Israel would prefer that the Palestinians remain divided, it knows that the Palestinian Authority is keen to prevent another round of violence and may help quell Gaza militants.

Gaza Strip

Gaza Strip

Perhaps most significant, Israel appears to be considering easing the blockade on Gaza and opening the various Gaza border crossings. Israel has ramped up these restrictions on movement in and out of the Gaza Strip since the 2007 rise of Hamas in order to prevent the group from effectively governing, building up infrastructure and improving the local economy. Egypt has also played a role, keeping the Rafah border crossing closed even under the Muslim Brotherhood, pushing Hamas to increase its numbers of cross-border tunnels to smuggle in goods and weapons.

Although it has not escaped harsh Israeli criticism, the current agreement comes at a time when various regional developments have combined to limit the security risks in the near term. The new agreement, which Israel has approved, will place these crossings under the control of the Palestinian Authority and Egyptian security forces, with possible international participation. Israel's willingness to concede this demand in the opening agreement suggests they believe a combination of Palestinian Authority with Egyptian and Israeli oversight will discourage smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Allowing construction materials is also important: In the past, Israel has opposed them, fearing that such materials could be used to construct tunnels.

The agreement, however, does not fully address Israel's demands for demilitarization in the Gaza Strip and the dissolution of Hamas' military wing, the Izz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades. These issues are unlikely to be resolved soon. On Aug. 28, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal publicly rejected calls for his group's disarmament. But Israel was aware of the enormous challenge that disarming the Gaza Strip posed when it agreed to the cease-fire, and it has apparently decided to compromise for the short term. While the recent cease-fire agreement may hold for the time being, Operation Protective Edge will not be the last chapter in the conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

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