After 49 days of fighting it appears that Israel and Hamas have finally agreed on a ceasefire that will put an end to what has become the bloodiest round of violence yet between them. But despite talk of avoiding a return to the status quo, this is exactly what has seemingly happened. Far from solving the underlying causes behind recent flare-ups, the current ceasefire risks sacrificing long term stability for short term calm, guaranteeing only a limited period of quiet while sowing the seeds for yet another round of violence.
This comes despite recent rounds of negotiations having steadily forced a serious discussion amongst policy makers on meaningful ways of alleviating the siege on Gaza while guaranteeing permanent calm along Israel’s border. Over the last weeks such discussions have focussed on providing Palestinians with access to a deep sea port (something they have been promised since 2000) while at the same time restricting Hamas’ arms flow through international oversight of Gaza's borders.
"Discussions still have a long way to go before yielding any concrete results"
To be sure, such discussions still have a long way to go before yielding any concrete results. Nor will they start to address the broader political context in which Gaza finds itself, namely that of continued Israeli occupation and the failure of peace negotiations. But no matter how imperfect, the fact that such discussions have been happening at all represent a tentative step towards eventually breaking repeated rounds of violence and delivering the security and stability that both Gazans and Israelis desire.
Yesterday’s announcement of a ceasefire does of course not put an end to this, but with discussions of these issues apparently pushed back for another month, there is the real risk that the drive for achieving a meaningful breakthrough on what are ultimately very sensitive "post-conflict" issues will be deferred indefinitely. There is also a risk that donors such as the EU will instead restrict themselves to the more straight forward tasks of delivering aid and reconstruction – and in doing so replicate the failed development policies of the past.
Judging by the jubilant celebrations witnessed within the OPTs and Palestinian refugee camps, such concerns seem to be a moot point for Hamas – at least for now. Having started the conflict in its most vulnerable position, both domestically and regionally, Hamas seems to have weathered the storm and is once again experiencing a surge in popularity amongst Palestinians. The Islamist movement can after all make a meaningful claim to having again stood-up to the Middle-East's most advanced military, inflicting on the IDF its highest casualty rates since Israel's war with Hizbullah in 2006.
In spite of Israeli airstrikes Hamas continued to demonstrate its capacity to strike large parts of Israel thanks to its arsenal of long-range rockets. It has also demonstrated a new threat in the form of its hitherto unknown tunnel network. Just as important though for Hamas, it has once again made itself into an indispensable interlocuteur in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, steeling the limelight from President Abbas who had been gearing himself to announce what he promised to be “diplomatic bombshell” this week.
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Make no mistake though, this is not the victory that Hamas is portraying. In agreeing to an indefinite ceasefire and postponing discussion of a deep sea port and the release of Palestinian prisoners it has made concessions it previously opposed and agreed to a proposal that was on the table weeks ago.
Meanwhile, calm may have returned to both sides but for Gaza’s inhabitants this means a return to their eighth year under siege in a Strip which, even before this round of violence, the UN has warned will be unliveable by 2020. Nor has the ceasefire demonstrably advanced Palestinian reconciliation efforts, although one can always (naively) hope that Hamas’ recent backing of Palestinian membership to the ICC and talk of deploying PA security forces along Gaza's border with Egypt could offer the beginnings of a more unified approach.
In many ways, Hamas and Netanyahu have been playing a high stakes game of poker over the last few weeks, with the pressure gradually building on both sides in what had in effect become a war of attrition. Pressure on Hamas was building as a result of an increasingly high Palestinian high death toll, the assassination of some of its tops leaders in Gaza, the steady depletion of its rocket stockpile and a collapsing Palestinian negotiating front.
Netanyahu, for his part, has had to contend with intense criticism from right-wing members of his government and plummeting popularity ratings so long as the conflict dragged on without the “calm” he had promised. At the same time Israelis have watched as Israeli-US ties have plunged to an all-time low amidst mounting international criticism of Israel’s use of disproportionate violence. Deep-down both Hamas and Prime Minister Netanyahu knew that only a negotiated ceasefire could offer a face saving exit, but the longer the conflict went on and the more capital invested by both sides the higher the stakes. Ultimately it seems it was Hamas that blinked first.
"Hamas and Netanyahu have been playing a high stakes game of poker"
But once the veneer wears off this current ceasefire agreement, a sense of deja vu is sure to return, with each feeling that they failed to achieve their underlying goals. Although Hamas can claim to have won the opening of some land crossings and the extension of the Gaza fishing zone, this still represents only a partial lifting of the blockade. And even these gains may prove temporary given how Israel backtracked on similar agreements made in the November 2012 ceasefire that ended Operation Pillar of Defence.
For Israel, its military operation sought to prop up the status quo and restore calm to its South by degrading Hamas' arsenal of rockets and (later on) destroying the network of tunnels extending into Israel. Such results may endure over the short term but as demonstrated following previous rounds of fighting Hamas will bounce back, undoubtedly leading Israeli officials - many of them unhappy that Hamas was left standing in the first place - to demand the IDF “mow the lawn” once again in Gaza.
Finally, given the reluctance of the US and EU to involve themselves this time round, questions will have to be asked of Egypt’s ability to act as an effective guarantor of the ceasefire. In fact, shared antipathy towards Hamas has made President Sisi and Prime Minister Netanyahu convenient bed fellows with the conflict exposing unprecedented levels of cooperation as their two countries sought to manoeuvre Hamas into a corner. Although Cairo may have initially miscalculated its ability to steamroll over the movement and impose an Israeli-Egyptian concocted ceasefire, cutting Qatar and Turkey out of negotiations and eventually brokering an Egyptian ceasefire will still be savoured by President Sisi. Whether his desire to preserve a notable foreign policy accomplishment though trumps his aversion to political Islam and Hamas remains to be seen.