The attempts by officials in the Middle East and beyond to find the formula for a long-term ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, attest to the complexity of the problem that emerged over a decade ago, with the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The lack of open and direct dialogue between Israel and Hamas necessitates international mediation. While neither Israel nor Hamas are interested in a violent confrontation, such a confrontation can occur at any given moment. The continued hostility between them, alongside a severe humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the inability of Hamas to deliver the economic and political conditions required to end this crisis, maintain prospects for violent outbreaks. The use of violence as a political tool helps Hamas raise the humanitarian crisis in Gaza on the regional agenda, as a means of preserving its status as the ruling entity in the Gaza Strip.
Given that the current state of affairs continues, international mediation initiatives towards a ceasefire in Gaza are doomed to fail. Without an agreement between Israel and Hamas, and without the backing and active involvement of the Palestinian Authority, there is no real prospect to improve living conditions in the Gaza Strip.
In light of Israel’s decision to refrain from an all-out military attack to defeat Hamas, both sides are looking for interim solutions to the challenges posed by Gaza. The Palestinian Authority, which sees itself as the legitimate sovereign of the Gaza Strip and Egypt, which fears a spillover of violence that will undermine stability along the Sinai-Gaza border, are also parties to this charged relationship.
Due to Palestinian Authority’s historical semi-state status and to the PLO’s role as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Egypt cannot abrogate Mahmoud Abbas’ demands and ignore the Palestinian Authority’s needs while searching for a solution to Gaza. Abbas sees the recent indirect dialogue between Israel and Hamas as undermining the status of the PLO. The international mediation, led by the UN envoy and some Arab states, grants Hamas with increased political legitimacy, and Abbas, who has already lost control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, cannot afford a situation whereby the PLO’s political status is further undermined.
Attempts by Israel and Hamas to reach a ceasefire agreement that does not involve the Palestinian Authority raise concerns among the PLO and Fatah leaderships. The PLO is therefore making efforts to thwart any initiative that does not give it a central role in the reconstruction of Gaza. This was said quite overtly during the recent PLO Central Council meeting in Ramallah (15-17 August 2018). It has also become a major source of contention in the intra-Palestinian reconciliation attempts.
The inability of Hamas and Fatah to unify the Palestinian political system also makes it difficult to reach a regional arrangement in Gaza. The disputes among the Palestinian movements obstruct efforts by the donor countries to extend assistance, since there is no agreed upon mechanism for transferring and managing the funds.
A ceasefire arrangement could serve as a temporary solution, but one that will continue to inflame the tensions between Fatah and Hamas, and between Israel and Hamas. Since Israel’s Cast Lead operation in Gaza in the summer of 2014, there have been cycles of violent confrontations between Israel and Hamas, that did not evolve to a comprehensive military conflict. The current year has seen another escalation, which was triggered by the Gazans’ “Return Campaign”, which included marches towards the border fence as well as arson attempts via kites.
These actions and the casualties involved were supposed to generate support of Hamas’ objectives in the Arab world and beyond. This campaign, however, failed. The marches led to escalation and to an increase in Palestinian fatalities, but did not generate the media response and political pressure on Israel that Hamas hoped for, not even on the part of Arab countries. The lack of political achievements of such a popular struggle strengthened Hamas’ military wing, at the expense of the movement’s political wing.
Efforts to reach a ceasefire are intended to produce a glimmer of hope for the residents of Gaza, but the political obstacles, primarily the split between Hamas and Fatah, reduce the chances of success. Moreover, Israel currently sees the developments in Syria (especially the Iranian presence there) as a more urgent challenge to deal with than that of Gaza. But leaving Gaza behind only raises the bar of violence there. It leads to renewed escalation and riots with the IDF along the border, with Hamas closely monitoring their intensity.
As long as the Fatah-Hamas rift remains unresolved, international mediation regarding Gaza can produce only temporary solutions. The socio-economic problems of the Gaza Strip and the division of power within Palestinian society will continue to create difficulties and to challenge the status quo. To counter this, permanent solutions are needed, and these can only be achieved under international auspices and with US support.
However, the current lack of trust between the PLO and the US administration prevents this. Trump’s decision to cut funding to UNRWA reflected once again that Gaza is not just an internal Palestinian issue. It is turning from a regional problem to a complex international one, in which there is a clash between American interests and those of other major countries.
While US President Trump aspires – unsuccessfully for the time being – to lead peace efforts under his own terms, the EU and other donor countries are looking for alternative short-term solutions that will significantly ease living conditions in Gaza. Such solutions, despite their importance, are not likely to solve the intra-Palestinian divide nor to produce a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
The road to an effective solution must include constructive US involvement that backs both sides to the conflict, and not just Israel. This is necessary for Israelis to feel that their security interests are taken care of, for the Palestinians to restore trust in the US, and for the US to once again be able to play the role of an accepted mediator.
Dr. Ido Zelkovitz is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute and Head of Middle East Studies at the Yezreel Valley College.