Everyone — And Nobody — Wants A Ceasefire In Gaza

CREDIT: AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City

On Tuesday afternoon in the Gaza Strip, another ceasefire was proposed to end the fighting between Israel and Hamas. This time, the call for the firing to halt came from a member of the Palestinian Authority, claiming to speak for Hamas as well. Within half an hour, however, the hopes for a deal quickly vanished as Hamas denied that they had signed onto such an agreement.

Such is the way of ceasefires during this latest round of war in the Gaza Strip. Only rarely have all three main parties to the conflict — Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization — agreed to halt the fighting simultaneously, though each of them has proposed their own version of a ceasefire over the course of the last three weeks. But in the end, at least one side acts as a spoiler, leaving the door open for the next proposal. On and on it goes, like a slot machine where the lever keeps getting pulled but all three sections steadfastly refuse to line up, leaving the prize tantalizingly out of reach and observers forced to ask why if everyone agrees that a ceasefire is needed, nobody wants to be the first to lay down their arms.

The first attempt to prevent the Israeli airstrikes into Gaza from escalating further came one week into Operation: Protective Edge, in the form of a deal brokered between Egypt and Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet announced on July 15 that they’d accepted the terms of the deal, which would see them committing not to conduct any ground incursion into Gaza and “all Palestinian factions” pledging to “refrain from firing all types of rockets, and from attacks on the borders or targeting of civilians.” Hamas, however, argued that they had not been consulted in the drafting of the ceasefire — which later reporting revealed to be true — and rejected it outright. In total, the halt in fighting lasted roughly six hours.

So far, so-called “humanitarian ceasefires” have gained the most traction with Hamas and Israel. Two days after the abortive six hour pause, the United Nations managed to convince the parties to hold their fire for five hours to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza. That night, however, dial was turned up as Israel launched “Operation: Defensive Edge,” the name for their ground assault into Gaza. After at this point two weeks of bombardment and shelling, nearly 500 Palestinians had already died, according to the U.N. That day, Fatah — the more moderate party in the unity government formed with Hamas earlier this year — proposed a truce, to be followed up with five days of negotiations. Neither Hamas nor Israel, however, signed up for the deal.

It was around this time that Secretary of State John Kerry began what would ultimately be a doomed attempt to foster a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, in the same vein as the deal that froze the conflict in 2012. Such an agreement, in theory, would open the door to address the grievances that both sides have and be a step toward a lasting solution to the conflict. On the one hand, the Palestinians — as well as several outside observers — are arguing that it’s necessary that Gaza be reopened, with the blockade that has ironically empowered Hamas lifted and talks on a two-state solution resume. On the other, Israel insists that Hamas be forced to disarm its military wing and recognize the right of Israel to exist, a demand that it holds Fatah and the Palestinian Authority responsible for facilitating. Both sides say that the other needs to move first.

Much ink has already been spilled on the reasons why Kerry’s ceasefire was ultimately rejected, but under the terms put forward both sides would agree to a week-long ceasefire for humanitarian purposes. For that span of time, the parties would have to “refrain from conducting any military or security targeting of each other” and allow food, medicine, and shelter to be delivered into Gaza.

But the fact that Kerry met with two of Hamas’ main international supporters — Turkey and Qatar — to help draft the terms upset both Israel and members of Fatah, who argued that the U.S. was strengthening the role of Hamas in the conflict. Israel also insisted that it retain the ability to target the system of tunnels Hamas operates — the original reasoning behind launching the ground invasion — during any humanitarian pause. For these reasons, the Israeli security cabinet reportedly unanimously voted against Kerry’s proposal, opening the door to a cascade of invective against the former senator in the Israeli press. Fatah joined in

Despite Kerry’s stumbles, on Friday the two sides agreed to a 12 hour halt in fighting. Here, however, is where it begins to become more complicated. That initial 12 hour deal was expanded unilaterally on Israel’s side on Saturday for another full 24 hours, though they maintained that they still had the right to target Hamas’ tunnels during this period. Hamas initially rejected the extension, continuing rocket fire into Israel, leading Israel to revoke its offer later that day. “But shortly after Israeli raids resumed, Hamas said it had decided to agree to a humanitarian truce,” the BBC reported.

That Hamas announcement in turn led to the group declaring that it would abide by a United Nations request for another humanitarian ceasefire during the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, which began on Monday. Neither side at this point seemed committed to actually holding fire entirely, but the tempo of strikes between the two actually dropped during this period. That changed on Tuesday as Israel vastly increased the pace of its operations, targeting areas symbolic of Hamas’ rule in Gaza, including the home of the group’s political leader, the group’s financial department used to run the territory, and the sole power plant in Gaza.

As the two grappled with whether or not to actually stop shooting, in a rare midnight session early Monday morning, the United Nations Security Council met to call for a ceasefire between all parties, issuing a presidential statement to that effect. While non-binding under international law, such statements have to be unanimously supported by all 15 members of the Council, including the five permanent members — Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Going against a long-standing policy of diplomatically shielding Israel at the United Nations, the measure won the support of the U.S.

All of this led to the current twenty-four hour period where one side or the other has unilaterally proposed no less than three ceasefires, which the other parties have rejected. While drafting this post, it appeared that all parties had managed after all to agree to the terms of a ceasefire, with Israeli TV announcing that the timing of the cessation would be announced later. Within half an hour, however, this supposed deal too had collapsed.