Toward a Lasting Ceasefire in Gaza
Middle East Briefing N°42
23 Oct 2014
More than seven weeks after the most devastating war yet waged in Gaza, its underlying causes remain unresolved. Hamas did not achieve an end to Gaza’s closure; Israel did not attain the demilitarisation of the Strip or Hamas. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) remains unrepresentative and its credibility continues to fade. Fatah’s popularity has sunk while Hamas’s has increased to levels unseen since its 2006 electoral victory. Small steps toward reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO have been taken, but they are very distant from the end goal of a unified, representative Palestinian leadership. But in reconciliation lies the only hope of achieving a sustainable ceasefire and, more broadly, of bringing Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank under one authority.
Israel, much of the PLO and the international community fear the possible consequences of integrating Hamas into the Palestinian national movement, as is called for in the Hamas-PLO reconciliation agreement signed on 23 April 2014. At the same time, many recognise that thwarting even the partial implementation of that agreement pushed a desperate Hamas toward war. So they, together with Hamas, have settled for the time being on a temporary fix, which is forestall robust PLO reform while permitting some significant but limited steps toward Palestinian reconciliation, including allowing the new Palestinian Authority (PA) government, formed on 2 June 2014, to regain formal control of Gaza, patrol its borders, staff its crossings, and pay salaries to employees previously paid by Hamas, all while leaving Hamas’s military wing as the strongest power within Gaza and the true guarantor of security there.
This arrangement, should it crystallise, would allow all parties to pursue their short-term interests. Hamas would be able to rebuild its military capabilities (albeit faced with greater obstacles than in the past), and Gaza’s population would receive aid and reconstruction. The Palestinian Authority would have the opportunity to gain a toehold in Gaza. The PLO, though concerned that it will be helping to strengthen Hamas and reward its violence, will secure increased Western support and be able to more credibly claim that it represents all Palestinians. And Israel would enjoy quiet for a period of unknown but longer duration than in the past, as it and Hamas prepare for the next battle.
With Gaza and Israel having fought their third war in six years, a more lasting respite would be welcome. Of course avoiding another eventual war requires a longer-term strategy that helps establish a Palestinian state. But with two-state negotiations in hiatus, the best the parties can hope for today is a more stable, durable ceasefire. This will depend not only on ensuring that the reconciliation agreement is implemented, but also on a significant change in Israeli policy toward Gaza. There are nascent indications of a belated realisation among policymakers that constricting the territory has compromised Israel’s security and helped bring about the war. The extent of these indications will be crystallised in indirect ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas, scheduled for late October. Another set of upcoming negotiations, between Hamas and the PLO, will be no less important, as Gaza cannot hope for real change if the PA’s technocratic government of national consensus does not take up its responsibilities – at least regarding Gaza’s borders and the payment of its government employees.
If a stable modus vivendi is not reached, the new PA government is at risk of collapsing, and with it, reconstruction, development and short-term stability for Israel and for Gaza. To prevent this, the parties should:
- Address the salary crisis by ensuring the bulk of civil servants hired since 2007 are paid. A Swiss-Norwegian-UN mechanism, which provides for paying these civil servants during a three-month period while they are vetted to exclude militants and the payroll rationalised, should be prioritised and implemented quickly. After the vetting process, donors should ensure a sustainable way to pay these employees.
- Consolidate the national consensus government. While the Palestinian Authority’s dependence on Western funding means that reconciliation can advance only in adherence with Quartet Principles, much can be done: PLO reform, addressing social aspects of reconciliation (including the resolution of disputes over deaths and injuries from Hamas-Fatah fighting in 2006-2007), increasing personal and political freedoms for Fatah in Gaza and Hamas in the West Bank, reactivating the Palestinian Legislative Council, and overseeing Gaza reconstruction by a committee comprised of representatives of all factions.
- Facilitate the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza to enable reconstruction and stabilise daily life. So long as cement can be accounted for under the rigorous mechanism established to monitor so-called dual-use materials, and assurances provided that it is not being diverted for uses other than those intended, Israel should not block the functioning of the mechanism even should it discover tunnel construction that has utilised cement acquired through some other means. Donors should make ensuring the smooth functioning of the mechanism a priority.
- Increase travel through the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s primary outlet to the outside world. Egypt will continue to make any changes at the Rafah crossing subject to its national security considerations, but it has long stated that it will greatly reduce restrictions once the PA’s security forces have begun working at the crossing and along the Gaza-Egypt border. The international community should encourage Egypt and the PA to live up to their pledges.
The international community will have a big role to play. Donors must do more than merely pledge money, which will achieve little if projects they fund cannot be implemented. Donor states must press both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to do their part. This requires supporting at least minimalist Palestinian reconciliation, a sine qua non of PA activity in Gaza, which in turn is necessary for reconstruction, without which a durable ceasefire is unlikely to hold.
In this new Arab era, this necessity holds no less for regional powers such as, on one side, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, and, on the other, Qatar and Turkey. With the region polarised into Islamist and anti-Islamist camps – and with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, sitting directly on the fault line – Western reluctance to engage Hamas and encourage a joint Palestinian agenda is now but one among several large obstacles standing in its way. That in the current moment Israel seems to have more interest than many of its Arab neighbours in boosting Gaza is certainly an ironic complicating factor – but so too does it offer an opportunity that should be grasped.
Gaza City/Jerusalem/Ramallah/Brussels, 23 October 2014