On July 4, 2014, I received from a senior Hamas official a proposal for a mutual cease-fire with Israel “to return to the understandings of November 2012,” meaning opening borders for goods and gradually ending the economic siege on Gaza (according to the Hamas understanding). Additionally, Hamas was demanding the release of prisoners arrested after the abduction of the three murdered Israeli teens – about 500 people, including 54 prisoners who had been released in the Schalit exchange.
My first response was to tell my Hamas contact that I thought that no one in Israel would listen to them and that it would be best for them to first stop shooting rockets and then, through Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, raise whatever demands they want. Nonetheless, as I promised, I passed on the message to very senior Israeli officials in the political and security services of the government. As I expected, the Israeli sources responded to the message with total disdain and anger, saying, “Who are they to make demands?” I have cautioned since day one of this round of violence that it is very likely that Hamas will come out on top, when prior to the current round of violence Hamas was at its lowest point ever.
I have emphasized that there is no military solution alone to this problem.
For Israel the end result should be a weakening of Hamas and a strengthening of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. The only way to achieve that is by recognizing that life for Palestinians in Gaza is total hell and no longer has meaning. Yes, they are sick and tired of Hamas rule, but if Israel attacks them in Gaza, they will rally around the flag. Hamas will gain in strength and public support because even after dropping over 1,000 tons of bombs on Gaza, Hamas is still shooting rockets at Israel. Hamas has extended the range of the rockets and they have proven that it is not afraid of Israel.
Yes, everyone knows that those rockets don’t really hurt Israel, but it gives them pleasure to know that someone stands up to Israel, that someone is willing to fight back. People in Gaza, including people in Hamas, believe that Israel is afraid to enter Gaza in a ground operation.
They believe that Israel is afraid of Hamas. This does not give them security, but it does give them pride.
Gazans have lost hope of a better future. This is a tragedy. When life has no hope; people become desperate and are prepared to do desperate things. This is very dangerous. Cease-fire is the answer, but the conditions for the ceasefire are crucial.
Ultimately we have to deal with the need for real changes on the ground.
Hamas is a disaster and it would be best if it were no longer the dominant force in Gaza. But an Israeli military operation to wipe out Hamas will not only lead to a reoccupation of Gaza, it will also likely produce a regime which is even worse and more extreme. See Iraq for a example of this. Getting rid of Hamas dominance in a real and lasting sense can only be done effectively when it is the decision of the Palestinian people, and not the Israeli military.
I return to my proposal of two weeks ago when I spoke of building Gaza, not destroying it. We need to expand the number of actors engaged in this conversation.
I have proposed the creation of a regional forum for security and stability which would first be established by Israel, Palestine (the Palestinian Authority), Jordan and Egypt. This forum could be backed by the League of Arab States and by the UN Security Council. An international fund for the reconstruction of Gaza should be established.
The fund’s work should be linked to the establishment of real security in Gaza, which includes the disarming of Hamas. This must be undertaken through the Regional Forum, the League of Arab States and the UN. Billions of dollars for infrastructure, education, health, welfare and job creation would be made available that would change Gaza forever and would finally provide hope to its people.
People are not born fanatics. Life’s realities shape people’s identity and their character. The realities need to change in Gaza quickly because they are intolerable and no human being would agree to live under those conditions. This is a job that must be undertaken in partnership with the Palestinian people themselves and with other regional partners.
Almost every other option being discussed in Israel today will at best provide short-term gains but also enormous long-term losses. The current Egyptian proposal should not be understood as “quiet for quiet.” Hamas and the Palestinian people will not perceive this cease-fire a loss for their side. They will declare victory and they will restart the rocket fire or threaten to restart if the demands that they made 10 days ago regarding the prisoners are not addressed. Israel will also declare victory and believe that Hamas has been weakened, its supply of rockets greatly reduced and its deterrence restored. In my assessment this is not true, with the exception of the reduction of the rocket supply. Hamas is strengthened and Abbas is weakened.
Hamas’s primary interest is taking control of the internal Palestinian arena.
They are now in a better position to achieve their goals. That is most unfortunate.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.
His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas from The Toby Press.