Gaza: Can alchemy of diplomacy bring lasting peace?

A shell lies on the ground at the heavily damaged Sobhi Abu Karsh school in Gaza City's al-Shejaea neighborhood on 5 August 2014

Any ceasefire only holds until the moment it is broken, but with every hour that passes the truce between Israel and the Gaza militants feels a little more solid.

That means every passing hour brings the two sides closer to the moment when they have to decide what they want from peace negotiations, and what they are prepared to give to get it.

The alchemy of diplomacy will now be applied to make a violent military confrontation with appalling humanitarian consequences into a kind of opportunity.

'Dauntingly incompatible'

Getting a ceasefire, hard as it was, may turn out to be the easy part.

A very simple kind of truce - one in which quiet is answered with quiet - was available to both sides all along.

Building something more stable will be difficult and will call for political flexibility.

The negotiations will be complicated.

Israel and the Gaza militants do not talk to each other directly so Egyptian diplomats and intelligence officials will shuttle between them searching for common ground.

An Israeli Merkava tank moves in a large column back to a staging area further back from the border with the Gaza Strip on 5 August 2014. Israeli tanks are still in positions away from the border with Gaza

It is not just the logistics that will be difficult.

The gap between Israel and Hamas is huge and their opening demands are dauntingly incompatible.

There is even a gap in perceptions of how the conflict ended, at least for now, which may turn out to be important.

Israel certainly did not lose this 'war' but it cannot really claim straightforwardly to have won it either.

Israel-Gaza conflict

8 July

Israeli offensive began

  • 4,760+ air strikes on Gaza

    3,488 rockets fired at Israel

    • 1,973 people killed in Gaza

      UN estimates +70% of deaths are civilians

    • 3 civilians killed in Israel

      64 Israeli soldiers killed

AP

It enjoyed successes. For example, the grinding down of Hamas's rocket stockpile and the destruction of its network of attack tunnels.

However, there was no crushing defeat of Hamas and no-one in Israel thinks the 'threat from the South' has been eradicated.

Plenty of Israeli voters, and quite a few right-wing politicians, think the army should have been allowed to go further and to go on for longer.

Hamas certainly will not see itself as having been defeated.

It fired at least one rocket at Jerusalem in the very last minutes before the ceasefire.

In its own eyes, that ability to keep 'resisting' Israel is a kind of victory.

Palestinian man throws an item from a destroyed house in Gaza City on 5 August 2014 Palestinians in Gaza begin the work of rebuilding, as the truce takes effect

Outsiders may not see things that way, but it is important to understand that the Gaza militants will not see themselves as a losing side in the run-up to these talks, and that will influence their approach.

Hamas wants an opening of Gaza's borders to both Israel and Egypt to relieve the miserable economic conditions in which the people of Gaza were living, even before this latest round of fighting.

New landscape

Israel will bristle at the idea of Hamas being rewarded at the end of a confrontation in which the Palestinian militants cannot point to any tangible achievement beyond a display of their ability and will to keep fighting in a hopelessly asymmetrical conflict.

Its negotiators will also argue that history shows Hamas and Islamic Jihad would simply use any easing of border controls to re-arm, thus hastening the day when the fighting will flare up again.

The Israeli counter-proposal might be a complete demilitarisation of Gaza to be carried out under international supervision. The destruction of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons could serve as a kind of template.

For the Gaza militants that is an existential problem. Fighting Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, indeed - refusing to accept Israel's right to exist - is the whole point and purpose of Hamas.

It is hard to see how they could accept a solution that left them disarmed even in return for much greater openness of Gaza's borders to the free movement of goods and people.

Masked militants of the Islamic Jihad group at the funeral of Shaaban Al-Dahdouh in Gaza City on 6 August 2014 Palestinians in Gaza mourn the death of an Islamic Jihad militant fighter whose body was found in rubble

This will not just be a straightforward (but indirect) negotiation between Israel and Hamas.

It will also see a major attempt to alter the political landscape of the Palestinian world.

Representatives of the Palestinian Authority (PA) will also be in Cairo.

Egypt would like to bolster their influence on the PA and get them back into Gaza from which they were expelled seven years ago after a bloody and protracted power struggle with Hamas.

The new Egyptian government led by Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is deeply hostile to Hamas because it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo sees as a terrorist organisation.

Gloomy alternative looms

A Gaza dominated by Hamas is viewed by President Sisi as a training ground and place of refuge for Islamist militants who could easily be dispatched into Egypt through the Sinai desert.

After years of hostility, Hamas had already begun to cosy up to the PA, more because it was finding itself isolated in the Arab world than from any genuine change of heart.

It may now find the price of securing international funds for reconstruction or for easing border controls is giving a much bigger voice in Gaza to its Palestinian rivals.

Israeli soldier resting beside tank in southern Israel on 6 August 2014 The ceasefire has brought temporary relief to both Israelis and Palestinians after one month of fighting

So there are a lot of moving parts to bear in mind and that means the possibility of a deal is there, but as always here, there is a gloomier alternative looming.

Both sides are already acting as though this ceasefire will stick - Israel is re-opening southern road and rail routes and people in Gaza are starting to move around more freely.

However, faced with the alternative of making difficult concessions, the two sides may yet conclude that the current grudging truce is the best that can be achieved for now and that it is enough.

If this latest round of fighting ends in that way it seems certain to pave the way for another round sometime in future.

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