Why A Gaza Ceasefire Is So Difficult
From President Barack Obama, to the U.N. Secretary General, to the U.N. Security Council, there has been no scarcity of calls for a ceasefire to end the fighting between Israel and Hamas; yet, there are few signs that these attempts have made significant progress. Previous rounds of the Hamas-Israel conflict have all ended with ceasefires fairly soon after the conflicts escalated. In the last six years there have been four major increases in the tempo of fighting. Operation Hot Winter in March 2008, Operation Cast Lead less than eleven months later, Operation Returning Echo in March 2012, and Operation Pillar of Defense roughly nine months after that, all ended with an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and a ceasefire which returned the situation more or less to the status quo ante bellum. Three of the four ended with a relaxation of border restrictions. So if all of the previous flare-ups ended this way, why is this time around different? Why is a ceasefire proving so difficult to attain?
Part of the problem lays in the pattern. Euphemistically called “mowing the grass”, the Israeli military responses to Gaza flare-ups seek to denude Gaza-based militant capabilities before declaring the job done and returning to the pre-war situation. After many years of this, the Israeli public seems weary and eager for something more definitive. Since 2012, Hamas has stockpiled missiles and built tunnels and other infrastructure. Through its current operations, the Israeli military can probably reduce the stockpiled weapons and tunnels to a level that will deliver another period of respite for the Israeli population, but this will not be enough. Even in the face of mounting casualties and international condemnations, the majority of the Israeli public has remained relatively calm and supportive of the ongoing operations in Gaza. They expect a strategic payoff, a tangible victory that makes their perceived sacrifices worthwhile. For the Israeli public, such a victory must not be ephemeral; it must be immediate and not indefinitely postponed. Without such a victory, at least one recent poll has shown that the Israeli public overwhelmingly supports continuing the operation.
This desire for what many Israelis conceive of as a real victory, combined with their frustrations about the repeated cycle escalations from Gaza, and the recent casualties explains Israeli discussions about reoccupying the entirety of Gaza. While full reoccupation is unlikely, any ceasefire that looks like it fulfills Hamas’ operational objectives, and thus might constitute a Hamas victory, would be unacceptable to the Israeli public. Moreover, as criticism of Israel’s policy of slow escalation has already surfaced from notable individuals, any such ceasefire will likely push Israel to intensify combat operations to a greater level early in any future period of escalation.
Hamas’ reasons for not accepting a ceasefire are largely unchanged since its rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal earlier this month, as I discussed in a previous article at War on the Rocks. For Hamas, a ceasefire must at the very least see Egypt reopen the Gaza border to trade and cease interference with Hamas’ ability to import weapons and financial resources. Failure to achieve these concessions may jeopardize Hamas’ ability to maintain its power in Gaza and perhaps its role as a major player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, as the conflict continues, Hamas needs an even bigger payoff to justify the war to the population of Gaza. This at least in part explains Hamas’ recent insistence that all its conditions including the release of prisoners be met before any ceasefire can take place. The needs of Israel and Hamas have become so zero sum that envisioning a mutually acceptable ceasefire package is difficult.
The situation in Egypt further complicates any effort to make a lasting ceasefire. Egypt has its own needs and objectives that a ceasefire must address. In practice, Hamas’ ceasefire demands require concessions from both Israel and Egypt. Hamas was allied with the Morsi regime in Egypt. The current el-Sisi government is therefore concerned that a strong Hamas will pose a threat. It fears that an open border with Gaza will allow weapons and money to flow both ways. Weapons from Gaza could find their way to Muslim Brotherhood members opposed to the regime or into the already unstable Sinai Peninsula. Finally, the Egyptian regime is concerned that a more open border will allow for spillover. Already during the current round of fighting, Egypt foiled attempts to attack Israel from Sinai. When the Gaza border was more open, militants used Sinai to attack across the Israeli border and Israel retaliated. The net effect not only risked Egyptian relations with Israel, but threatened to further destabilize Sinai. In a regional sense, Egypt also has something to lose from an unshackled Hamas. In the competition among Middle Eastern states for regional power, Qatar and Turkey are attempting to step into the void left by Iran as Hamas’ backer. Both are rivals to Egypt for regional influence. Egypt, therefore, has good reason to be wary of any ceasefire that opens border and strengthens Hamas. However, given the nature of Egyptian concerns, it may be possible for the United States and members of the international community to provide Egypt with incentives and guarantees to make it feel comfortable taking the risk. If Egypt proves unwilling to make major concessions on the border, then the international community would struggle to find anything to offer Hamas and even more so anything they could offer that Israel would also accept.
At this juncture, finding a formula to which all three involved parties would agree is unlikely. While Egypt has its own concerns, Hamas needs a victory and Israel will not accept a defeat. So what other options exist? As I noted above, there have been suggestions in Israel that a unilateral solution involving a reoccupation of Gaza might provide the answer. While the Israeli population might support an expansion of the ground operation, there is no evidence of widespread support for an indefinite occupation. Furthermore, to do so would be tantamount to international political suicide and imperil Israel’s relationship with the United States. A more modest unilateral solution might be the reoccupation of some of the border areas and the Philadelphi Corridor, which runs along the Egyptian border. Such a move would carry significant military and political risks, and in effect, continue the current round of fighting.
There is another way Israel could unilaterally act to effect a ceasefire. If Israel manages to erode Hamas’ capabilities to a degree that resembles a long term strategic impact rather than another round of ‘mowing the lawn’, it may be able to withdraw unilaterally claiming that it accomplished its mission. This could be made more likely with a sweetener provided by the United States or the European Union – though in the current situation the nature of a sweetener sufficient to do the job is admittedly hard to fathom. In any case, this arrangement would be contingent on Hamas not receiving any significant concessions and carries the risk that major rocket salvos or a tunnel-based attack from Gaza could immediately restart the conflict. Even without such an eventuality, if the quiet that such a withdrawal brings proves short lived, then the Israeli public will most likely demand a far greater response to future flare-ups. While a unilaterally declared Israeli ceasefire is unlikely, a unilaterally declared Hamas ceasefire at this stage without Israeli and Egyptian concessions is all but impossible. Hamas simply cannot afford it. On the other hand, any ceasefire agreement that meets many of Hamas’ demands not only runs risk of rejection by Israel and Egypt, but makes it more likely that Hamas will use employ this kind of flare-up to achieve goals in the future and that Israel will respond with more force earlier in the escalatory process. Furthermore, relaxing the restrictions on the Gaza-Egyptian border is a move which in and of itself carries the risk recreating the current the situation however in an even worse form. Relaxing the border restrictions give Hamas a chance to rebuild their capabilities and infrastructure including tunnels. A better equipped, better financed, and resurgent Hamas would having achieved its demands in this conflict would have little reason to avoid future escalation. Moreover, once the escalation happens a Hamas which benefited from a relaxed border would be in a position to make the conflict more difficult which in turn will have a net effect of making the conflict more deadly for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
An agreement wherein the Egyptian border is open but monitored by an international force, or one guaranteeing that tunnels do not cross under the border into Israel, might allow for sidestepping Hamas, but will still gain little traction with the Israeli public. In general, the Israeli public has little faith in international forces. Very public failures such as the pull out of U.S. and UK monitors from a prison in Jericho have eroded Israeli confidence in such measures. A European Union force is already tasked with monitoring the Rafah crossing, however, it by its own admission, it could not act to prevent smuggling. Moreover, the Israelis do not trust the E.U. Over the years, statements from the E.U together with actions, such as the E.U. countries decision not to oppose the UNHRC resolution on the current Gaza conflict, have left Israelis with the impression that the E.U. is pro-Palestinian and cannot be trusted as a guarantor of Israeli security. Yet, the E.U. has more credibility in Israel than the U.N. The chance that the Israelis will agree to any formulation that relies on the U.N. is negligible. The Israelis see little difference between UNHRC, which often appears bias against them, and any other U.N. body. This has been made still worse by the events surrounding the rockets found in UNRWA schools during the current fighting.
There is another path that might provide for some form of ceasefire without needing to meet Hamas’ demands. It is an unlikely road that leads through Ramallah and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA could take control of the border areas Israel now occupies and the Philadelphi Corridor in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal. This, however, would put the PA forces in an impossible situation. Eventually they would either have to turn a blind eye to Hamas activities — thus further reducing Israel’s trust of the PA and harming the possibility of an eventual peace agreement covering the West Bank — or confront Hamas. Such confrontation would lead to a repeat of the Palestinian civil war that took place, primarily in Gaza, in June 2007. This is something the PA certainly does not want to see and might not win either in Gaza or the West Bank. Finally, the PA cannot afford to be seen as a tool of the Israelis against other Palestinians. For these reasons the PA will be reluctant to agree to a significant role in Gaza. Furthermore, even if it did, many Israelis do not trust cooperative security arrangements. This mistrust stems in part from incidents such as those at the beginning of the Second Intifada wherein Israelis were killed by their joint security patrol counterparts. Together these factors mean that a ceasefire achieved through the PA is quite unlikely. So if a negotiated ceasefire that addresses the concerns of all of the involved parties is less than probable, and many of the options that bypass one or another of the parties are also improbable, then what remains? The only possibility which seems to exist on the immediate horizon is a series of humanitarian truces. However, unless Hamas can address the problems that motivated it to choose escalation in the first place, or Israel can achieve a tangible victory, these truces will be no more than temporary. Unless something significant changes, Israel and Hamas will continue to engage in a war of psychological and diplomatic attrition. To the victor goes the ceasefire.
Jacob Stoil is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University and a DPhil candidate at University of Oxford. He holds an MA in History of Warfare from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Jacob specializes in military history and strategic studies with research and publications focusing on the Middle East and Horn of Africa as well as the use of indigenous forces.
Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces