Hamas wants to achieve by force what the Palestinian Authority has failed to negotiate – a fully autonomous and militarized Palestinian state, except in this case, it would be a mini-one, the “State of Gaza.”
And Hamas wants to make this happen in record time in Cairo, a somewhat miraculous act, which would make US Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed nine-month peace process last year look like a very slow boat to China.
The on-again, off-again, Egyptian brokered, indirect talks between Israel and Hamas in Cairo are framed by the guns of war, not the dialogue of statehood.
The focus has been a list of concrete Hamas demands in exchange for holding its fire.
But if Israel and the international community were to cede one of Hamas’s most critical demand, lifting the blockade, the pragmatic result would be the birthing of the “State of Gaza.”
Hamas already has territory, 360 sq. km. of land, bordered by Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea.
It has a government and an army. If the military and civilian blockade of Gaza were lifted and free movement and access guaranteed, Hamas would also be able to trade, have a normalized economy, and break its international dependency.
To grant so much to Hamas, after terrorizing Israel with rockets and infiltration tunnels, would make a mockery of over 20 years of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
“It would tell all the Palestinians, everywhere, that the only way you can get things done is through violence, not negotiation,” said Gershon Baskin, who negotiated with Hamas to return captive soldier Gilad Schalit in 2011.
Even the very fact that Hamas is present in Cairo with a veto power strengthens the group, weakens the Palestinian Authority, and makes it more difficult to return to a peace process with the PA, Baskin said.
The Gaza conflict broke out in July, just three months after the peace process between Israel and the PA broke down in April. It was sparked by the Hamas murder of three Israeli teens it kidnapped from a hitchhiking post in Gush Etzion.
Israel’s war with Hamas heated up just as Jerusalem was gearing up for diplomatic battle to prevent the terrorist group from gaining a strong foothold in the West Bank.
Hamas has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, and Hezbollah, as well as Iran. The idea of a strong Hamas on its southern border and in the West Bank worries Israel both in terms of its immediate security and the larger regional battle against terrorism.
The West Bank borders Jordan, and Jordan borders Iraq, which is fighting its own battle against the Islamic State.
Many Western and even Arab countries share Israel’s concern about Hamas. This is particularly true for Egypt, who is wary of the group’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and doesn’t want a strongly armed Hamas on its border.
Israel, therefore, wants to meet enough of Hamas’s economic demands to halt the rocket fire without rewarding the terrorist group, and at the same time send a clear message that statehood is best achieved by diplomacy, not force.
Any solution in Cairo can’t eliminate the possibility of returning to a negotiating process led by the Palestinian Authority.
At the same time, Israel can’t ignore the problem both locally and internationally posed by the severe economic restrictions it has imposed on Gaza over the last seven years.
The sight of Israeli bombs wounding women and children during the war deepened global sympathy for the people of Gaza. Even before Operation Protective Edge, many in the international community believed that restoring Gazan lives to normality was more significant than the negative consequence of handing a victory to Hamas.
Even the US, which supports Israel’s security needs, has spoken in the last week of the importance of lifting the economic blockade in the future.
“Long term, there has to be a recognition that Gaza cannot sustain itself permanently closed off from the world and incapable of providing some opportunity – jobs, economic growth – for the population that lives there, particularly given how dense that population is, how young that population is,” US President Barack Obama said at the US-Africa summit earlier this month.
Ioannis Vrailas, the deputy head of the EU delegation to the UN, told the organization in New York this month that “the status quo ante is not an option.”
The problem for Israel is that Hamas has failed to recognize Israel or renounced its stated objective of destroying the Jewish state. That objective would remain in place, even if the blockade was lifted.
As evidence of the complexity of the situation, a mortar shell from Gaza landed in the middle of a storage space at the Kerem Shalom Crossing last week, forcing its closure as its staff was process 250 truckloads of supplies heading into the Strip.
Justice Minister Tzipi LIvni has argued that economic easements should be tied to assurances of a demilitarized Hamas.
Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) said the latest conflict with Hamas showed that Israel should worsen conditions in Gaza. Hotovely called for Israel to halt shipments of goods to Gaza and to stop supplying electricity to the Strip.
But other Israelis note that years of harsh restrictions have not weakened Hamas and that normal economic restrictions should be restored to Gaza, where only three slim artery lines connect it to the outside world.
Outside of Kerem Shalom, there are two pedestrian passageways, one into Israel at Erez and one into Egypt at Rafah.
Less than one percent of the population was able leave Gaza through those crossings on most days in the last years. Goods typically enter Kerem Shalom, but Palestinians who live there can not sell their goods in Israeli or Palestinian territories, which once made up 85 percent of its market.
“It is impossible to overstate how devastating the closure is. People are not able to work. They can not see family members. They cannot reach universities. They can not get to their jobs. The closure has blocked any horizon of hope in Gaza, especially for young people,” said Sari Bashi, the co-founder of Gisha — the Legal Forum for Freedom and Movement.
Her organization works within Israel to lift the closures.
Eitan Diamond, Gisha’s director, said that stabilizing Gaza’s economy would enhance the security of both Israel and the region.
“It would be a mistake to think of lifting the closure of Gaza as a zero sum game,” he said.
If an agreement is reached in these latest Cairo talks, Israel and Hamas are most likely to come to an agreement that will restore calm, but not prevent another flare up of violence. Hamas is unlikely to demilitarize or turn power over to the PA. Israel is unlikely to agree to any scenario that restores normal life to Gaza while Hamas is in power.
Right-wing politicians such as Naftali Bennett of the Bayit Yehudi have called on Israel to reoccupy Gaza.
“We should not be in Cairo, in Cairo we are negotiating with Hamas and we should not be negotiating with Hamas,” said Baskin.
He called on Israel to find a way to bypass Hamas and to strike a deal with the Palestinian people there.
“What Israel is trying to achieve in Cairo is the status quo, with a weakened Hamas,” he said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beytenu party, argued in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week that the correct approach both to Gaza and the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is a larger regional solution, which would include moderate Arab countries.
Whether through a regional or local approach, the end of the Gaza conflict is the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Until that conflict is solved, Gaza violence will continue to remind Israelis and Palestinians alike that the price for maintaining the conflict is a high one.