Israel-Gaza conflict: Hopes for another uneasy truce

A fresh ceasefire may provide some temporary relief for Palestinians but, as Donald Macintrye reports from Gaza City, there are doubts whether a new round of negotiations will prove any more successful than the last

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The Independent Online

Israel and Palestinian factions agreed to a new 72-hour ceasefire beginning at midnight on Sunday night to allow the resumption of negotiations in Cairo aimed at securing a durable end to the month-long conflict in Gaza.

Israel, however, continued launching air strikes well into the evening. Missiles from two drones set ablaze a Gaza City warehouse packed with inflammable cleaning materials. It was not clear whether anyone had been inside. The warehouse was 200 metres from the main hotel used by foreigners. 

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said negotiations during the new truce would be “the last chance” for a deal, while a senior Israeli government official said: “Israel has accepted Egypt’s proposal.”

Israeli negotiators will return to Cairo today to resume indirect talks with the Palestinians if the truce held, the official added.

Israel’s delegation returned home on Friday when negotiations reached deadlock. Hamas had rejected an extension of the previous three-day ceasefire, firing some rockets into southern Israel, which retaliated with air strikes that reportedly killed 10 Palestinians.

A new ceasefire will provide at least temporary relief to Gazans. About 1,900 people, the majority of them civilians, have been killed since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on 8 July. At least 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in Israel, following rocket fire from militant groups in Gaza.

Firefighters try to extinguish a blaze in Gaza City that witnesses claimed was caused by an Israeli air strike

However, the latest news still leaves open the question of whether a new round of negotiations will be any more successful than the last. “What has been offered so far is not acceptable to us,” a prominent Hamas official, Mushir al Masri, told The Independent. “We are waiting for new offers.”

In several respects Hamas is in a much stronger position than it was before the war, when it looked increasingly unpopular inside Gaza and isolated outside it.

The closure, by an Egyptian government hostile to Hamas, of the smuggling tunnels that were Gaza’s lifeline through the first six years of Israeli blockade, was a catastrophe not only for civilian life here but for Hamas’s finances. Hamas, which had been collecting taxes of up to £25m a month on the huge smuggling operation, was left without even the cash to pay its 40,000 public employees. Since then, its ability to fight back militarily against Israel – much greater than in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 – has created a deterrent capacity of its own.

The maze of tunnels that Hamas’s military wing is thought to have built beneath Gaza, affording maximum mobility and surprise, has made possible the prospect of an Israeli ground invasion deep into Gaza City, one that could cost hundreds of Israeli soldiers’ lives, not to mention rockets reaching as far as Haifa. “This resistance has impressed the Palestinian people,” said Mkhaima Abusada, the leading Gaza analyst at Al Azhar University.

Video: Bodies thrown out of graves by rocket attacks

But the stakes for Hamas in these negotiations are high, because of the need to show Gazans a gain from four weeks of appalling loss and destruction, including – but by no means limited to – 16,000 destroyed houses. That means lifting the siege, which every Gazan wants and which, in theory at least, the international community supports. “Homeless Palestinians will start turning against Hamas if it is not able to open the crossings and bring in construction materials,” said Mr Abusada.

Mushir Al Masri, speaking at Shifa Hospital, one of the few places in which Hamas leaders judge themselves safe, said a seaport remained “at the top of our demands”, saying the idea had gained “international acceptability”.

Mr Abusada pointed out that Hamas was not seeking immediate implementation of all its demands and would agree to international monitoring of any corridor for cargo ships. Hamas has already paved the way for security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the Western-backed president of the Palestinian Authority, to police the Palestinian side of a re-opened southern Rafah crossing. This would be done under the aegis of the “unity government” it recently agreed with Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement – but which Benjamin Netanyahu denounced before the war. “Hamas does not want to be in charge in Gaza,” said Mr al Masri. “There is supposed to be a unity government.”

Israel has so far been determined to resist any concessions that Hamas could present as a victory. It is insisting on Hamas “demilitarisation” – something that Mr Abusada said Palestinians would not agree to without an end to occupation.

Israel could have avoided that dilemma by yielding to humanitarian pressure to lift the blockade on Gaza before this conflict started. It could have rewarded the anti-violence Mr Abbas by moving determinedly to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. And, because the need to import construction materials is more urgent than it was before the war started, a refusal to allow in such materials would also flout the UN’s insistence that maintaining the blockade “is not a viable option”.

Nevertheless, in view of the Israeli stance before the ceasefire reports this weekend, Mr Abusada said: “I have to admit I am not optimistic that a solution is coming.” 

If there is no agreement in Cairo, Egypt and Israel will have the satisfaction of having denied Hamas a victory.

But for Gaza’s 1. 8 million people it could mean many months of continued conflict – even if it was much more subdued than in the past month. But there would always be the prospect of another one like it in a year or two – and a return to the economic and social misery that has been Gaza’s fate in the periods when it is not actually being bombed and shelled.