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Egypt offered Hamas an impossible deal

Aug 26, 2014, 12:04 PM

The resumption of fighting between Israel and Hamas can be largely attributed to Egypt’s failure to broker a fair, enduring cease-fire. Egypt’s cease-fire proposal, as outlined in 11 points, was effectively a call for a return to the status quo: a besieged Gaza Strip with token, unspecified assistance to help it rebuild - the third reconstruction Gaza will have to undergo in less than seven years.

The Egyptian government offered a tissue to cover a crack, and sought to impose its own interests in the Gaza conflict: to sideline and weaken Hamas. It tried to do that throughout the two weeks of negotiations in Cairo, which collapsed on Aug. 19. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi refused to talk directly to Hamas, while seeking to empower the Palestinian Authority as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

Egypt also ignored Hamas’ demands for a cease-fire, namely the lifting of the illegal seven year Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip that has crippled its economy and made life for its 1.8 million inhabitants unbearable.

Apart from calling for a cessation of violence, Egypt’s proposal discussed opening Gaza’s border crossings only to facilitate reconstruction, with no mention of its own crossing with the Strip, which has been mostly closed since Egypt’s military ousted former president Mohammed Morsi on July 3, 2013. The proposal postponed discussion of a Gaza airport and seaport, with no specified date, and despite the EU’s public support for a seaport.

Egypt also suggested Israel retreat from buffer zones within the Gaza Strip - a clause in the previous cease-fire agreement of November 2012 - with the only difference that Palestinian Authority security forces would man the vacated areas. Forces from the Ramallah-based government have had no presence on the ground in Gaza since Hamas violently ousted Fatah from the territory in 2007.

Although the two factions signed a landmark reconciliation deal in April, producing a unity government, little progress has been made on the make-up of the Palestinian security forces - still split between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip. Thus, any suggestion to deploy Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip, outside a national Palestinian framework, can only be seen as an attempt to weaken Hamas’ hold on the Strip.

The proposal’s call to extend Gaza’s fishing zone to 12 nautical miles, from the current zone of three nautical miles, also rings hollow. This was agreed upon in the November 2012 cease-fire deal, and has been routinely violated by Israel ever since. Why would Hamas believe Israel would adhere to such terms on this occasion? Not to mention that the 12 nautical miles proposed by Egypt also falls short of the 20 nautical miles the Israelis and Palestinians signed to in the Oslo Accords.

Hamas’ key demands on the other hand - lifting the siege, releasing the prisoners re-arrested by Israel after the Gilad Shalit deal, and respecting the Palestinian reconciliation deal - were not taken into consideration. Instead Egypt offered Hamas a return to its crippled, besieged state that it found itself in prior to the current war. Predictably, Hamas would prefer war than return to the status quo.

Prior to the war, Hamas was looking for a way out of a crisis that was harming its rule and image in the Gaza Strip. The siege was an economic burden, but it was manageable with the tunnels economy along the Egyptian border and a flow of Iranian money to Hamas’ coffers. These two vital sources that enabled Hamas’ rule in Gaza vanished in 2013, with the Egyptian military destroying the tunnels, and Iran cutting off financial aid due to Hamas’ decision to support the Syrian rebellion against Tehran’s key ally in Damascus.

With its popularity declining in Gaza as the economic crisis worsened, Hamas turned to President Mahmoud Abbas, and acquiesced on a reconciliation deal that surrendered the reins of governance in Gaza to Ramallah. In this sense, the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza achieved its aim in making the Strip so insufferable that either locals would revolt against Hamas, or, as occurred, Hamas would surrender its rule. Hamas found itself locked inside Gaza, and sought a way out through the Palestinian reconciliation deal. Returning to a besieged Gaza Strip is not an option for Hamas, as it knows it will bear the brunt of rising local discontent with the siege’s consequences.

In no clearer terms, Hamas was offered an impossible deal as Egypt’s aim was to corner the group into agreeing to unfavourable terms, as opposed to finding a lasting solution to the Gaza crisis. The resumption of war is Hamas’ message to Egypt that it will not surrender to Sisi’s dictates. It is unfeasible that Hamas would agree to a cease-fire deal that does not result in the lifting of the siege. The stakes are too high for Hamas; the people of Gaza will not accept anything less than the end of the siege, particularly after the immense suffering they have had to endure from Israel’s assaults.

Hamas officials routinely complained that the cease-fire talks were not providing results, and were an attempt to restore calm to the Gaza Strip and deny Hamas its only card: war. Although the circumstances are largely pitted against Hamas, what it can promise both Egypt and Israel is non-quiet.

Hamas’ measly rockets might not inflict significant material damage on Israel, but their ability to disrupt Israeli life and economy - and Israel’s inability to prevent rocket fire - is a card to their advantage. Hamas’ sophisticated tunnels network along the frontlines with Israel and its preparedness in urban warfare give the Islamists confidence in confronting any Israeli ground incursion. Hamas is of the belief that if it can raise the cost of war for Israel - by disrupting life for its citizens, dinting its economy, and inflicting heavy casualties among its soldiers - the Israelis will agree to a far-reaching deal that includes lifting the siege. With war ever so transparent courtesy of modern communication tools and social media, Hamas also hopes the damage to Israel’s international standing and public outrage in the West will either force Israel to compromise, or pressure Western governments to nudge Israel to the table.

The Israelis, however, also believe the military approach can work to their advantage, with the hope that the heavy suffering they inflict on Gaza’s population will pressure Hamas to drop its demands, and return to the status quo.

With over 2,000 dead, and a political funeral beckoning for Hamas should it return to a besieged Gaza Strip, the Israelis and Egyptians may have underestimated Hamas’ determination to fight it out to achieve what it needs: an end to the siege. There is no way Hamas will return to the status quo.

Guest opinion piece by Antoun Issa published for the information and education of our esteem readers. Issa is News Editor at Al-Monitor.com Follow Antoun Issa on Twitter: www.twitter.com/antissa

“The Egyptian government offered a tissue to cover a crack, and sought to impose its own interests in the Gaza conflict: to sideline and weaken Hamas.

It tried to do that throughout the two weeks of  negotiations in Cairo, which collapsed on Aug. 19”.

Antoun Issa