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Middle East and North Africa Report 191 - Rebuilding the Gaza Ceasefire

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A ceasefire agreement has brought Israel and Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas back from the cusp of yet another calamitous war. However fragile, it offers a rare opportunity for all parties to finally break the cycle of recurring hostilities that has killed thousands since 2007.

What’s new? For the first time since the 2014 war, a plan for a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel started to take hold in early November, only to be disrupted by the largest escalation in over four years. The ceasefire has been restored, but it remains fragile.

Why does it matter? Sporadic escalations between Israel and Hamas since 2007 have claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians and tens of Israelis. Coupled with an Israeli/Egyptian blockade on Gaza, the conflict is causing widespread suffering among the strip’s two million Palestinians. The current ceasefire offers a pathway to breaking this deadlock.

What should be done? Hamas should keep curbing protests and attacks from Gaza; Egypt and Israel should greatly relax the strip’s closure; and donors should quickly supply Gazans with clean water, electricity and sanitation. Meanwhile, international stakeholders should press Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt to uphold the ceasefire in all its phases.

Executive Summary

Brief but violent, the 11-13 November escalation between Israel and Hamas was a potent reminder of their relationship’s volatility. That it came against the backdrop of an apparent breakthrough in indirect negotiations to reach a ceasefire was particularly telling: it suggested that a seemingly minor incident could quickly snowball despite the two protagonists’ contrary wishes. As Hamas resumes its effort to restrain armed operations, Israel and Egypt must act urgently to carry out their responsibilities under the terms of the understanding that was reached and work to alleviate the suffering in the Gaza Strip that too often is a proximate cause of violence. Experience shows that after the parties have secured an initial calm, the impetus for Israel and Egypt to pursue lasting stability fades. Such a failure at this time might very well lead to another escalation that could spiral into war.

In the first week of November, Hamas and Israel began implementing the ceasefire agreement that they had been indirectly negotiating since the early summer, with Egyptian and UN mediation. The agreement is set to advance in three stages. The first entails the general amelioration of the dynamic between Israel and Hamas, which, unchanged, holds the potential to lead both parties into an inadvertent escalation. Once they achieve relative quiet, the parties reportedly are to move to subsequent phases, which involve efforts at more permanent stabilisation of the Gaza Strip, reconstruction and reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), resulting in re-unification of Gaza and the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank.

On 11 November, less than 72 hours after the ceasefire appeared to be taking effect, hopes that the actors were moving toward a more lasting calm were dashed. Hamas’s security forces spotted and confronted an undercover Israeli operation within the Gaza Strip, leading to exchanges of fire that threatened to expand into all-out war. The parties have since stepped back and reaffirmed their commitment to the ceasefire agreement. Still, the deep distrust between the parties, and the precarious domestic position of each, underscore the fragility of the truce.

What is required now is for Hamas to maintain its grip on popular protests in Gaza, while Israel and Egypt resume meeting their ceasefire commitments: relaxing the restrictions imposed on Gaza through sustaining the inflow of fuel and funds; increasing the number of Gazans who are able to travel in and out of Israel through the Erez crossing and Egypt through the Rafah border; and expanding the type of imports and volume of exports from the strip. Once these measures have stabilised Gaza, the parties should then turn to the more substantive issues related to reconstruction and reconciliation. No one should take an initial calm as an indication that the ceasefire has succeeded: all should make sustained efforts to implement the agreement’s stages to fend off the threat of war.

Gaza City/Jerusalem/Ramallah/Brussels, 16 November 2018