Diplomats arrive in the Middle East this week in an attempt to broker a lasting cease-fire in the most deadly war between Israel and Hamas to date. But who is best placed to orchestrate these talks?
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cairo on Monday, determined to assure that all negotiations would take place there. A day earlier, Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon landed in Doha, the capital of Qatar, indicating a prevalent notion among world diplomats that only Qatar can deliver Hamas’s cooperation.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, this week pushed for a U.N. Security Council resolution that would impose a cease-fire, condemn Israel and demand that it open all crossings into Gaza.
Desperate to extract any benefit from a war in which it started from a very weak position, Hamas strategists are looking for an interlocutor who can best plead their case. They have so far snubbed Egypt, whose president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Hamas sees as an enemy. They are wary, too, of Abbas. And they have little faith in the United States.
Instead, Hamas is hoping that its last regional allies—Turkey and, even more so, Qatar—will steer the talks.
Hamas wants to ensure that when the war ends, the flow of funds, goods and—most important, according to Israeli sources—arms into Gaza will be vastly improved over the severe restrictions in place before the war. Egypt has destroyed most of the underground tunnels that have led into Gaza from the Sinai Desert and has also kept the Rafah border crossing, at Gaza’s southern tip, under tight supervision to prevent illicit cargo from being smuggled in aboveground.
Israel does not trust Qatar, which has been a stalwart supporter of Hamas and its Egyptian-based parent organization, the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. And Jerusalem has all but ended Israel’s recent thaw with Turkey, whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said this week that Israelis are “worse than the Nazis.”
Gaza’s demilitarization has become one of Israel’s top long-term goals, as its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made clear last weekend. While the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) works to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities, the Netanyahu government is demanding that, to avert similar wars in the future, the “international community” should declare Gaza an arms-free zone after a permanent cease-fire.
Last week, before Israel widened its Gaza operation to include ground troops, Egypt proposed a cease-fire formula that was widely welcomed in Washington, Europe and the United Nations. Abbas also accepted its terms, as did Israel, which even halted its air campaign in Gaza for five hours to facilitate the diplomacy.
But although Hamas’s second in command, Mousa Abu Marzouk, was in Cairo to take part in the talks, Hamas rejected the Egyptian deal. Cairo was livid. “Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian initiative, at least 40 Palestinian souls would have been saved,” the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shukri, told reporters. He also blasted Turkey and Qatar for meddling in the talks.
At the collapse of the talks, the Israeli delegation sent to Cairo (which included the head of the country’s internal security, Yoram Cohen, and Netanyahu’s confidante Yitzhak Molcho) hastily returned to Jerusalem to brief the security cabinet. According to Israeli sources, at that time the prospect of another negotiated cease-fire looked bleak.
The same day, 13 Hamas militants emerged from a tunnel dug underneath Gaza’s border with Israel in what Israeli officials said was an attempted attack on the nearby Kibbutz Sufa (population 150). Several similar attacks have also been averted since then. (In one skirmish, two Israeli soldiers were killed while battling the insurgents.) The IDF reported that the infiltrators who came through the tunnels carried heavy weaponry as well as syringes and tranquilizers, indicating that as well as killing residents near the border, they planned to kidnap Israelis and hold them hostage.
The Hamas tunnels, some of them as long as a mile and a half, have become an even bigger threat against Israel than the rockets, which mostly have been rendered nonlethal by Iron Dome, Israel’s anti-missile defense system.
“We’re not talking about a little mole tunnel which is dug and a person goes through like in Shawshank Redemption,” said Miri Eisen, a former head of the IDF combat intelligence unit. In Gaza, she said, tunneling is done “the way you would build nowadays trains, roads—anything that goes underground into a mountain.”
On Thursday last week Netanyahu’s cabinet approved—“with heavy heart but full-heartedly,” as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the cabinet’s most dovish member, tweeted—a plan to send troops to destroy Gaza’s network of tunnels. Officials say the decision was based as much on the diplomatic failure in Cairo as on the failed Hamas tunnel attack.
Meanwhile, some of the key players in the conflict, including Abbas, flew from Cairo to Turkey, then on to Qatar, in the hope that the two countries that are Hamas’s closest allies can find a way to end the fighting. While the U.S. continues to openly praise the Egyptians for their role as mediators, Washington had also been consulting Qatar. But after several phone conversations between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, the U.S. came to the conclusion that the Doha track will not provide a secure and satisfactory permanent end to the war.
“If any party is trying to help achieve a cease-fire, we will try to convince them to do it through the Egyptians,” the American ambassador in Israel, Dan Shapiro, told Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet last Monday.
Qatar has long been Hamas’s closest friend in the region. The Sunni organization fell out with Syria when Hamas leaders sided in the Syrian civil war with the rebels against President Bashar Assad. At that time, Hamas’s chief, Khaled Mash’al, left Damascus, where he had lived for years, and moved to Doha.
“A lot of this is personal,” explained an Arab diplomat. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, he said, is competing with the neighboring Saudi king for leadership of the Sunni Arab world. The Saudis are financing and supporting Egypt’s al-Sisi in his fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, so the Qataris, the diplomat said, do the opposite.
The Qataris have offered to finance Hamas officials, who salaries have not been paid for several months. But Israel and the Palestinian Authority declined to facilitate the money transfers. The U.S. lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, so by law it is barred from financing it.
Qatar maintains a “very warm relationship with Hamas, but has no relations with Israel,” says Elliott Abrams, who was a White House Middle East adviser to President George W. Bush. He added that Turkey, too, has become increasingly hostile toward Israel. Erdoğan, meanwhile, has accused Israel of committing “systematic genocide” against Palestinians and says the rest of the world, including the U.S. and the U.N., should be doing more to stop it.
While supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, American officials have become increasingly concerned about the rising death toll in Gaza and are pushing for a quick conclusion to the war. By the time Kerry arrived in Cairo on Monday, however, Hamas spokesmen were still insisting they were “winning the war” and appeared less than eager to end it.
The venue for the cease-fire talks has become a major stumbling block to a lasting cease-fire. But so has the question of Gaza’s future: Will the border be hermetically sealed so Hamas cannot be rearmed with rockets and other weapons, as Israel and Egypt are demanding? Or will the border be opened up to the free flow of all goods, as the Palestinians and their allies would like?
As long as that fundamental issue remains unresolved, it seems the fighting will continue.