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Negotiations by fire lead to shaky truce in Gaza

May 07,2019 - Last updated at May 07,2019

A 48-hour deadly escalation between Israel and Hamas/Islamic Jihad in Gaza has ended Monday at dawn after an Egyptian-led mediation finally succeeded in restoring calm. This was the most serious flare-up between the two sides since Israel waged a major offensive on the beleaguered strip back in 2014. It does not really matter how the showdown started. Tension has been rising since the end of the Israeli elections in March, amid signs that the Israeli government was backtracking on commitments made earlier to loosen its decade-old economic blockade.

The sad reality is that both sides were negotiating by other means, by raising the ante and exchanging messages through rockets and airstrikes. As usual, innocent civilians paid the ultimate price. More than 25 Palestinians, including two pregnant women and a baby, were killed in addition to over 90 injured. Among the dead Palestinians were a leading Hamas commander and his family. Four Israelis were also killed. Dozens of buildings, including residential towers, were razed to the ground by Israeli air strikes.

As the dust settles, both sides find themselves with their backs to the wall. For years, Israel had no clear policy on Gaza other than keeping 2 million Palestinians suffering under dire humanitarian conditions. It alone controls the fate of the Gaza Strip by allowing the flow of essential aid only to stop it abruptly and without good reasons. One day it would extend the fishing area to 10km, only to attack Gaza fishermen who dare enter that very zone.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, euphoric following an historic victory at the polls, would use the Gaza card to drum up support among far right parties and line up supporters behind him. And once things get out of hand, he would cave in and restore calm; until the next round of violence.

For Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the goal is more defined: They want a long-term calm with their mortal enemy that would lift the economic blockade and relieve growing popular discontent among Gazans. The status-quo is not tenable, thus the launching of more than 600 projectiles and missiles, including one that hit Beershiba, about 40km away, is a signal that their deterrence ability is getting stronger.

The flare-up comes at a critical time for Israel, which will be marking its independence day in few days and will host the Eurovision song contest later this month. The Hamas/Islamic Jihad message to Netanyahu is that they now have the capability to disrupt these festivities.

On the other hand, the Egyptians want more than a long-term period of calm between the two enemies. They hope they can use the truce to kick-start talks over Palestinian reconciliation. That is clearly something that Netanyahu does not want. Moreover, the UN and the international community are unable to make headway in reversing a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza.

In reality, the Israeli government, which has turned Gaza into an open prison and threw away the keys, does not care about improving the lives of 2 million Palestinians. In fact, some of Netanyahu’s partners want him to order a major ground and air offensive that would terminate the growing threat of Hamas and others groups. Making things worse is that even when UN fact-finding missions accuse Israel of possible war crimes, it changes nothing on the ground.

But the Israeli narrative, that it is acting in self-defence and protecting its citizens, is getting weaker. Thanks to social media outlets, the reality of the horrific price paid by civilians in Gaza is going viral; credit goes to activists on both side of the divide. The credibility of western media, largely and traditionally pro-Israel, is eroding as people turn to alternative outlets to understand what is happening on the ground. More and more progressive Israelis and western Jews are becoming increasingly vociferous in condemning Israel’s brutal response to the ongoing plight of Palestinians.

That is not to say that Hamas is not to blame for extending the suffering of its people. Its political leadership is weak as it yields more power to the military wing. Its refusal to honour a series of understandings with Fatah to restore national unity has weakened the Palestinian national movement ahead of a release of a controversial US vision for a final settlement of the conflict.

For now, we do not know what the Egyptian mediation will deliver in terms of a long-term truce and an easing of the economic blockade. But we know that Gazans will continue their weekly protests next Friday, and that Israel’s response will determine if the Egyptian mediation has succeeded or not. Another flare-up will only prolong and deepen the suffering of Gazans. The grim reality is that both sides seem to accept that any agreement, temporary or enduring, must first be baptised by fire.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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