Strategic Assessment (107): De-escalation Between Gaza Strip and Israel: Prospects and Odds of Success
Cairo is sponsoring efforts to conclude a de-escalation agreement between the Resistance in Gaza Strip (GS) and Israel, based on reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, or without reconciliation it if proves difficult to achieve. The political scene has seen clear movements in this direction, involving local, regional, and international stakeholders.
Although the notions of truce and de-escalation have always been present in the dynamic of the Hamas-Israel conflict, the new arrangements for de-escalation/truce have a special significance imposed by the current context. For we witness the continuation of the Great Return March protests along GS’s borders, the faltering reconciliation with Fatah, increased tensions in internal Palestinian politics, and the US administration’s activation of dangerous measures in the context of the so-called Deal of the Century.
Given the complexity of the current situation, the multitude of actors involved, and the strategic ambiguity in the region and the world, the possibilities include a series of overlapping scenarios all of which entail huge risks. Despite the apparent possibility of achieving de-escalation given the US position pushing in this direction, the reality is too complicated to develop along this trajectory.
There is a fundamental difference between the two concepts in Hamas’s political thought. While the concept of truce existed earlier in its political discourse, it was de-escalation that has been implemented several times since al-Aqsa Intifadah, which is defined as a cease-fire that may be accompanied by limited partial understandings. The truce concept, however, is a reflection of larger and more comprehensive settlements.
Talk about the truce, which includes the cessation of armed action against the occupation for several years, in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and GS, has been repeated several times in Hamas’s political discourse since the early 1990s. Some of the early instances of this were contained in remarks by Sheikh Ahmad Yasin in 1993; and in an initiative by the Hamas politburo in April 1994. Even if some of those remarks and initiatives did not include the term “truce” explicitly, the formulations all revolved around the substance of this concept, which was covered in detail in Hamas’s recent political document.
De-escalation meanwhile signifies a mutual ceasefire. It may include backing down from new hostile measures such as closing the crossings, and may serve as a prelude for broader understandings. De-escalation was applied several times, such as in 2002 during the al-Aqsa Intifadah, and in 2005 at the request of President ‘Abbas, in preparation for the legislative elections.
De-escalation would take place repeatedly following the Palestinian division, after each round of confrontation between Israel and the resistance in GS. In such cases, the de-escalation was usually the outcome of public or private mediation, or as a result of implicit understandings when one of the parties stops hostilities, prompting the other party to follow suit.
The longest period of agreed de-escalation had been mediated by Egypt, and involved all Palestinian factions, taking place after the Israeli war on the GS in 2014. It was supposed to pave the way for broader understandings leading to the lifting of the GS siege, but that did not happen.
The two concepts were later merged into several initiatives and visions, the latest of which was the recent Cairo initiative, proposing a long period of ceasefire that would last several years. Thus de-escalation would acquire a timeframe, and the long-term aspect as truces, without acquiring the other features and conditions. At most, it would be linked to a special solution for GS, which has been a source of controversy, friction, and concerns in the Palestinian arena, especially in light of the Palestinian division and US efforts to liquidate the Palestine issue based on the terms of the ruling Israeli right.
Several initiatives combining truces and de-escalation, which did not include conditions for the resistance to disarm or to recognize Israel, have been proposed. The most prominent was the initiative of Tony Blair, in addition to other recent initiatives such as Qatari initiative, and the initiative of Nikolay Mladenov, the envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the Middle East. Although these initiatives, while exclusively concerned with GS, include implicit recognition of Hamas, Hamas prefers to resolve the Gaza crisis in the context of reconciliation with Fatah.
To this end, Hamas and Fatah signed the Al-Shati’ Agreement in April 2014. After the failure of the agreement and the imposition of punitive measures on GS, Cairo hosted new meetings that led to understandings between the two movements in October 2017, which also subsequently faltered, after the convoy of Prime Minister Rami Hamadallah was attacked in Gaza.
Following a period of Egyptian hostility towards Hamas, which began after the rise of President Sisi to power, there was a sudden rapprochement. While Hamas wanted to achieve the maximum benefit from such initiatives, amid the crippling blockade and the deterioration of the regional landscape in a way that disadvantaged Hamas, Fatah expressed a lot of reservation vis-à-vis the Egyptian efforts
What was later known as the “Deal of the Century” or “Trump’s Peace Plan,” which turned out to be aimed at liquidating the Palestine issue according to the Israeli vision, led many to believe that the Egyptian role either in the reconciliation process or in the de-escalation/truce agreements was not completely independent in its objectives, meaning that the real stakeholders concerned with these efforts were multiple.
Finally, after the failure of reconciliation and the intensification of the blockade, Hamas, in partnership with other popular and factional forces, pushed towards new forms of struggle, represented in the Great Return Marches and accompanying simple tactics such as kites and incendiary balloons. This proved troublesome for Israel and limited its operational and public relations options to crackdown against the protesters in GS, but this did not prevent escalation even though no side wants it. Armed clashes between Israel and resistance erupted on multiple occasions in recent months, and it is in this context that Cairo re-launched efforts for de-escalation with or without reconciliation, if the latter proved to be difficult to achieve.
Hamas sought to lift or ease the GS blockade while preserving its gains in the context of national reconciliation. However, Hamas seemed compelled to deal with the ongoing initiatives in view of the intransigence of the Fatah leadership, which has demanded as a precondition the full “empowerment” of President Abbas’s government in GS to complete the reconciliation process. Otherwise, Fatah would reject any truce between Hamas and Israel outside the PA framework.
As for Israel’s calculations, they include the fallout from the Great Return Marches, the potential for escalation on the GS borders without a clear view of what would come after that, the Northern Front, and regional instability. Other Israeli considerations include the one-upmanship between Israeli leaders, the issue of Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas, and the optimal political value of any de-escalation in the context of Israel’s overall plan for the conflict.
As for the US administration, it is clearly interested in GS, evidenced by the statements of Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s special envoy for international negotiations, who “has offered a message of praise to Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for helping to facilitate an agreement ‘to restore calm in Gaza.’” He added, “The Palestinian Authority should be part of the solution for the Palestinians of Gaza and Palestinians as a whole,” and “If not, others will fill that void.”
It seems difficult to explain the Egyptian behavior, in isolation from the US orientation, in addition to its own interests in a truce/ de-escalation accord, including the its national security, regional status, and political, economic and security interests in GS, while cutting off some of its regional rivals such as Qatar and Turkey. Egypt prefers to accomplish this under the umbrella of the Arab official order.
The complexity of the current situation, the multiplicity of actors, and the contradiction of their interests, opens up several scenarios:
1. Linking de-escalation to reconciliation. While this is one of Fatah’s conditions, Fatah continues to make strict demands for any reconciliation. If reconciliation was to be made a higher priority than de-escalation, the PA may succeed to prevent Hamas from reaching a de-escalation agreement without implementing reconciliation on the ground. This scenario is likely, given the PA’s control of key levers of the Palestinian arena, and by virtue of being relatively unbound by Egyptian pressures, and its own security role.
2. The Conclusion of a limited de-escalation agreement, including the opening of the crossings and the expansion of GS fishing zones, without a specific time table, based on the accords of 2014. This could include promises of agreeing on other issues later related to lifting the siege and the Israeli captive soldiers. This scenario does not contradict the previous scenario, as it may be based on new reconciliation agreements reached in Cairo, but could also move forward in isolation from the reconciliation issue if the latter proves too intractable.
3. A long-term truce/ de-escalation agreement, beginning with gradual steps, including opening a waterway for goods to Gaza through Cyprus or other proposals. Even if some see that this scenario is preferable to the Trump administration, it is unlikely, or opens up the prospects for a major collapse. For there are no guarantees to fulfill the demands of the Palestinians to get the siege lifted, Israel and its allies do not have to support a Palestinian side they consider an enemy, and because any agreement would be fragile and liable to collapse even with the smallest incident. In addition, there is the PA obstruction and some factions’ opposition to such agreements, such as the PFLP.
4. Return to square one, namely a fragile informal de-escalation, without reconciliation moving forward, which is now the status quo. This status quo makes the war a probability, however it seems undesirable to all sides.
1. De-escalation must be agreed with the consensus of all resistance forces.
2. The PA in Ramallah must lift all forms of sanctions on GS, to create the appropriate climate for national consensus on any de-escalation and reconciliation agreements, and for ending the GS siege.
3. The resistance forces must pursue the opportunity to ease the siege with greater caution against any conspiracies aimed at the Palestine issue, Palestinian national unity and the rights of the Palestinian people.
4. The PA in Ramallah must assume the governance of GS in accordance with the reconciliation agreement of 2011, on the basis of national partnership.
 The Jerusalem Post newspaper, 30/8/2018, click here