North Africa, West Asia

Stabilizing Palestine with a better Gaza ceasefire: a new narrow opening

The US should allow a UN Security Council resolution that includes an end date for the Israeli occupation.

Nathan Stock
30 July 2015
Palestinians in Gaza celebrate Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan.

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan. Demotix/Mhamed Hajjar. All rights reserved.“Bukra fil mish mish,” the Arabs say – “Tomorrow in apricot season.” Given the shortness of the fruit’s season, it is the English equivalent of “when pigs fly.” This phrase encapsulates general public opinion on the likelihood of progress for peace between Israel and Palestine. Yet current domestic political dynamics in Palestine and recent changes in the positions of key Arab states do provide a narrow path by which the international community could stabilize Gaza and provide a political horizon for the Palestinians.

This conflict is infamous for its paralysis. The latest stalemate came in the aftermath of the 2014 war, dubbed Operation Protective Edge (OPE) by Israel. There appeared to be a consensus, at least among western governments, about ending the cycle of wars between Israel and Gaza. The international community expressed support for the deployment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) government in Gaza. The PA, recognized by the west, was to take control of Gaza’s borders from Hamas, which has been the de facto power inside Gaza since a brief Palestinian civil war in 2007. This was to be the key to lifting Israel’s eight-year closure of the territory.

One year on, none of this has come to pass. When faced with Hamas’ intransigence, the reluctance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to deploy PA security in Gaza, and Israel’s unwillingness to lift its blockade, the international community failed to make the post-war consensus a reality.

Left isolated, Hamas, understandably, is attempting to solve Gaza’s problems on its own. Using various intermediaries, Hamas has been trying to reach understandings with Israel about lifting the blockade, in exchange for a long-term ceasefire. The two sides have a shared interest in agreement, but the evidence suggests that their positions are too far apart. Hamas leaders have told The Carter Center for years that they need a full opening of Gaza’s land borders, as well as the establishment of a sea and airport. Underlying their stated position is a deep need to show a substantial improvement in the lives of the Palestinians of Gaza – and fast.

The problem is that there is no indication that Israel is willing to go that far. As Israeli journalist Amira Hass recently pointed out, in the best case scenario, the measures the Israeli army is proposing for Gaza would benefit 100,000 of the territory’s 1.8 million residents.

If Hamas were to announce its own ceasefire, it would likely have two significant, adverse effects. First, sooner or later, when Gaza had not become Singapore, there would be a backlash. Failure of these negotiations would empower hardline elements in Hamas’ military wing, and in other factions, who could feel they had no choice but to return to war. Second, even a limited agreement is likely to prompt a strong negative reaction from the PA leadership in Ramallah.

There are already deep-seated fears about Hamas achieving its own independent links with the international community. A separate ceasefire agreement with Israel could prompt the PA government to end even the veneer of political unity between the West Bank and Gaza, which would have negative implications for a future two-state solution.

However, the picture is not entirely bleak. Recent changes in the domestic Palestinian political scene and in the positions of key regional actors actually make the kind of grand bargain envisioned after OPE more possible now – if western governments can seize the moment.

In recent weeks, there have been limited discussions between the dominant Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, regarding possible changes to the PA government. Thus far, they have made little progress, though consultations are ongoing.

The current PA cabinet, a ‘technocratic’ government that lacks ministers from Hamas or Fatah, has been unsuccessful in asserting its authority in Gaza. Now that the issue of a change in government is on the agenda, the international community should engage Abbas proactively. Western governments should stress that they want a representative government formed, including the President’s Fatah party, Hamas (in some form), and other factions. A government that is representative of the dominant political forces in Palestine is more likely to reunify PA institutions in Gaza than the current cabinet.

For this to work, the US and the European Union in particular must make clear that they are willing to work with President Abbas creatively to get to a government that does not automatically run afoul of the Quartet principles (recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and accepting prior agreements). These conditions were laid down by the Quartet for Middle East Peace (the US, EU, Russia, and the UN) after Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in 2006. The conditions were calibrated to be unacceptable to Hamas, and the ensuing impasse led the US and EU to effectively boycott what was then a Hamas-led government.

There are at least two potential ways around the principles. First, the US could build upon the precedent set when it recognized the current Palestinian government. In June 2014, in close coordination with the US, President Abbas picked a government of loyalists and technocrats. He repeatedly insisted that his government accepted the Quartet principles, and the Obama administration, to its credit, did not boycott it. The administration should signal that it could work with a future government under these same terms – even if it included Hamas members.

President Abbas and, indirectly, western governments, should push Hamas to allow its future ministers in a Palestinian cabinet to accept the Quartet principles – even if Hamas as a party does not. In exchange for this significant concession, those particular Hamas ministers should no longer be boycotted by the international community. If this is asking too much, Abbas’s western allies should at least push for bringing figures sympathetic to Hamas into the cabinet to represent its interests.

Getting a functioning PA government in Gaza will require overcoming opposition from the Palestinian factions themselves. This is no small task, but there may be opportunities for progress that did not exist a year ago. While relations between Fatah and Hamas are bad, there is a recognition on both sides that the technocratic government has failed, and there are senior political figures voicing support for a unity government. If the international community could provide assurances that such a government would not be boycotted and that it would support the principle of power sharing, it may be able to push the parties together.

Finally, to get the PA into Gaza, the international community must ensure that Israel will do its part. This means securing two sets of assurances. First, Abbas needs to know that, if he deploys his security forces to Gaza’s borders (as the Palestinian parties agreed back in April 2014), he will not be held responsible for security issues he cannot control. Abbas needs promises that Israel will not retaliate against the PA every time some small militant group launches a rocket into Israel. Second, he needs guarantees that Israel will actually open Gaza’s crossings to the movement of people and goods. He cannot afford the loss of face that would occur if he deploys to Gaza and fails to get the borders open.

Of course, getting Israel to make meaningful changes in its Gaza policy won't be easy, but the time to make this push is now. The Israeli security establihment already recognizes the need to open Gaza, at least to a degree. They have allowed very limited exports out of Gaza and have increased the number of Palestinians allowed into Israel, though the changes effect only a tiny fraction  of Gaza's 1.8 million residents. The international community should make a high-level, concerted effort to ensure that Gaza’s borders are opened as part of a coordinated agreement with a PA government that is sharing power with Hamas. This would do much to boost Palestinian unity – as opposed to a “side” agreement with Hamas, which will further estrange the West Bank and Gaza. 

The other opportunity that should be seized is a shift in approach in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The new Saudi king, Salman, is much friendlier to Hamas than his predecessor (Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal just visited Saudi Arabia for the first time in nearly three years). He wants Hamas cemented into a Sunni Arab alliance against Iran.

To this end, he seems to have convinced Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to moderate his opposition to the organization. Egypt and Hamas also are being drawn together by shared security concerns, with both fighting Islamic State supporters in Gaza and Sinai. Egypt’s temporary opening of the long-sealed Rafah crossing and its recent meetings with Hamas officials – after two years of estrangement – suggest that relations are improving and that they may be amenable to opening the Rafah crossing more regularly.

The platform for bringing these pieces together should be official ceasefire talks in Cairo. After OPE, negotiations barely got off the ground. Western governments and the Saudis should coordinate with Egypt on reviving the talks. The abbreviated negotiations last year provide a model to bring together a joint Palestinian delegation, including the PA, Hamas, and other factions, negotiating via Egypt. This would be enormously preferable to the unofficial negotiations now underway between Hamas and Israel.

Egyptian-brokered talks, where the PA has a formal role, would address fears in Ramallah that Hamas could secure a separate agreement with Israel. Plus, the Palestinians should be able to get a better deal if Hamas is not operating alone. A coordinated position from a PA-Hamas delegation, with backing from key Arab actors and support from the west, is more likely to achieve the radical change in Israeli policy that the people of Gaza need.  

Finally, if the international community genuinely wants to stabilize Palestine, they must go beyond repeated statements of “concern” about the “unsustainable” situation. The US should allow a UN Security Council resolution that includes an end date for the Israeli occupation. While France may have been persuaded to shelve this, it is still a good idea. If western governments want President Abbas to bear the risks inherent in a PA deployment to Gaza, they need to give him something that meaningfully supports his moderate political program. Abbas needs to operate from a position of strength.

A Security Council resolution, through which the international community makes it clear that it expects the Israeli occupation to end within a finite timeframe, is the best way to do this. A deadline will make it easier for the Palestinians to accept other aspects of the resolution that they might not prefer (such as a reference to land swaps). Further, a resolution would make clear to Israel what the parameters of an agreement must look like. This would stimulate debate within Israel about what it means to be pro-peace (saying that you want an agreement, but that you will never relinquish an iota of Jerusalem is not going to cut it). Most importantly, such a resolution would provide international architecture for future diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if the occupation did not end within the deadline.

The international community seems to have no appetite for expending the substantial political capital needed to push Israel to end the occupation. But the reality today is that merely trying to stabilize the situation necessitates a coordinated effort, from the highest levels in Washington, Brussels, and the Arab world, to get the leadership in Israel and Palestine to do things they will resist.

Despite many good-faith efforts, demarches by diplomats in Jerusalem and Ramallah have not been sufficient to reunite the PA in the West Bank and Gaza. Removing a few more West Bank checkpoints provides no hope that the occupation will end. President Abbas’s recent willingness to consider changes to the Palestinian government, together with current changes in the Saudi and Egyptian positions on these issues, present a new narrow opening to begin addressing the root causes of the conflicts between Israel and Gaza, while also giving the Palestinians a sorely needed political horizon. If this does not happen, Palestine will continue to simmer, until the parties stumble back into war.

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