Post-Operation Protective Edge Strategic Assessment
Beyond the operational and strategic merits and shortcomings of the Egyptian proposal, the Israeli cabinet will face a domestic challenge in articulating to the public the reasoning behind accepting the proposal.
2014-08-18 by Friends of Israel Initiative
What is on the Table?
More than 40 days since the onset of Operation Protective Edge (OPE) and 13 days since the first round of indirect negotiations started in Cairo (August 5), a final ceasefire agreement remains elusive.
The indirect negotiations between Israel and a joint Palestinian delegation and led by Egypt follows the original framework of the Egyptian July 14th proposal: to temporarily cease hostilities while the parties negotiate an agreement (cease fire – talk after). For more than three weeks, Hamas leadership in Gaza and abroad rejected this framework and sought to negotiate under fire (talk first – ceasefire later). The unwillingness of Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to follow Hamas’s dictates resulted in the effective capitulation of Hamas under Israeli military duress and due to Israeli civilian resilience. Furthermore, as Hamas’s state patrons – Qatar and Turkey – were sidelined and global policy attention shifted to the crisis in Iraq, Hamas’s leadership seems to realize that it has been left with only bad or even worse options.
Nonetheless, Hamas continues unrelentingly to demand that the parties agree now to the construction of an airport and a new seaport. From Hamas’s viewpoint, these aspired facilities would vindicate its month-long offensive that has created a humanitarian disaster for the residents of Gaza. An airport and new seaport would concretely “liberate” Gaza from the so-called blockade imposed by Egypt and Israel and would transform Gaza into a de-facto independent and self-sufficient entity under Hamas rule.
Over the past week, Egypt tabled a detailed ceasefire proposal (August 13). As the most recent “humanitarian truce” is about to expire with no agreement on the midnight of August 18, Egypt has also set forth a second proposal (August 17) that is an extension of the July 14th framework – a one-month lull in hostilities after which the parties will resume negotiations.
Egypt’s August 13 detailed ceasefire proposal offers Hamas only but a few of its desired objectives. The proposal provides for a cessation of all military operations and hostilities, including the construction of Hamas’s terror tunnels. In addition, Israel will gradually extend the fishing zone for Gaza’s fisherman to an eventual 12 miles and Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces will gradually take over the 500 meter security perimeter along the Gaza-Israel border. The proposal also includes the opening of the border crossings between Israel and Gaza subject to terms and conditions to be agreed between the Israeli government and the PA that will allow for reconstruction in Gaza and the movement of goods and people between Gaza and the West Bank. Israel and the PA will also “coordinate” the transfer of funds to Gaza to resolve the salary crisis in Gaza. The proposal postpones the discussion on the building of an airport and a new seaport for Gaza along with the negotiation on the exchange of Hamas operatives captured during OPE and the remains of two Israeli soldiers. Egypt has reiterated its position that the opening of the Rafah crossing connecting Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula will depend on the security situation and deployment of the PA security forces to the Gaza-Egypt border. The European Union (EU) complemented the Egyptian ceasefire proposal with a decision of its Foreign Affairs Council on August 15 to offer the reactivation of the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM Rafah) that was suspended in 2007. The EU also offered to expand its EUPOLL COPPS mission operating in the West Bank to train and support the redeployment of PA customs personnel and police forces to Gaza.
Combined with the EU proposal, the Egyptian ceasefire framework, with apparent Israeli consent, offers to considerably ease the closure regime enforced on Gaza by both Egypt and Israel. However, this framework does not only deny Hamas’s leadership main objective of embedding its self-sustained rule of Gaza through the establishment of an inspection-free airport and new seaport, it actually weakens Hamas’s institutional grip on Gaza and brings back the PA. While Hamas leaders might claim a victory in the easing of the closure, it would be a pyrrhic victory undermining their position. It is therefore no surprise that the head of the joint Palestinian delegation and the PA’s Chairman’s personal envoy declared (August 12) that “Hamas rule in Gaza is over”. Equally not surprising, and as parties resumed the indirect negotiations on August 17, Hamas spokespersons all but rejected the Egyptian proposal reiterating their demands for an airport and a new seaport. Hamas’s continued defiance is most likely encouraged by Qatar and in itself reflects the limits of regional pressure on Qatar. Either Saudi Arabia is disinclined to expend political capital on the matter of Gaza or that Qatar views the issue of a new Hamas-dominated seaport in Gaza a major strategic interest for Qatar.
On its part, Israel has not made any public reference to the Egyptian proposal. From the outset of negotiations, Israel has stated that the basic equation should be: Gaza rehabilitation in exchange for Gaza disarmament. However, and as negotiations evolved, it became clear that the Israel position is not binary – Israel did not demand that the humanitarian situation will not be improved until Gaza is fully disarmed. Rather, if the new set of agreements would weaken the grip of Hamas on Gaza and considerably deny Hamas the ability to restock its munitions and reconstruct terror tunnels, Israel would be willing to equivalently ease the closure regime on its side. In that sense, the Egyptian ceasefire proposal appears to meet Israeli preferences. The movement of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank and the importation of construction materiel into Gaza would be subject to terms and conditions agreeable to Israel.
Furthermore, the proposed agreement cannot be detached from the close strategic coordination and security cooperation between the new Egyptian government and Israel. One can safely assume that any Israeli-Palestinian agreement concerning Gaza is based on a series of understandings between Israel and Egypt regarding security measures and cooperation to prevent the illicit trafficking into Gaza of terrorists, weapons, and weaponry and construction materiel (to be used for manufacturing rockets and building terror tunnels).
Taking into consideration the positive track record of security cooperation between the Israeli military and the PA security forces, the possible deployment of the PA security forces at the expense of Hamas, could improve the security situation on the ground on both sides of the border. Notwithstanding, the anticipation that Hamas would “welcome” the PA security forces is questionable and the challenges that the PA security forces are likely to meet are incomparable to their current responsibilities in the West Bank. In Gaza, PA security forces will have to undertake routine security operations intended to prevent terrorist actions of a semi-military robust force. Thus, the deployment of PA security forces, even with the support of an EU police training mission, will not necessarily guarantee improved security.
Notwithstanding, a significant Israeli reservation concerning the Egyptian proposal is the bolstering of the PA and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. From the perspective of the Israeli government, Abbas has not been a constructive negotiating party in the peace process. Since the breakdown of the US-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Abbas appears to have been positioning himself to launch a diplomatic offensive against Israel to improve the Palestinian standing on the world stage without having to negotiate with Israel. In a series of political and diplomatic measures, Abbas circumvented Secretary Kerry’s intention to unveil a US framework for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (which he viewed as largely negative), while having the US officials pin the failure on Israel. Furthermore, Chairman Abbas endorsed the UN Human Rights’ Council investigation into Israeli alleged “war crimes” in Gaza and personally acted to secure the investigation’s funding from Saudi Arabia. This clearly indicates how Abbas intends to leverage his bolstered position in the aftermath of the conflict in Gaza. Against this backdrop, one can appreciate the Israeli reluctance to enhance Abbas’s leverage.
Beyond the operational and strategic merits and shortcomings of the Egyptian proposal, the Israeli cabinet will face a domestic challenge in articulating to the public the reasoning behind accepting the proposal. Curiously (and not entirely understandably), Prime Minister Netanyahu faces growing public criticism concerning his apparent willingness to accept the ceasefire agreement, wrongly viewed as defeating Israel’s interests. Notwithstanding, it is fair to assume that if Hamas would accept the Egyptian proposal – as unlikely this option currently seems – Israel would accept it.
1. The Palestinian factions and Israel accept the August 12 Egyptian ceasefire agreement: At this point, and lacking sufficient regional pressure on Qatar, Hamas’s primary state sponsor, the likelihood that Hamas will withdraw its claim to agree now on the unconditional construction of an airport and a new seaport in Gaza, is remote.
2. The Palestinian factions and Israel do not reach an agreement on a comprehensive ceasefire arrangement –
a. The parties agree to the new Egyptian proposal and extend the truce by a month (or any other timeframe agreed): Against the backdrop of the other alternatives, this is not the worst option from Hamas’s perspective, but it isn’t good either.
b. Hamas spokespersons have indicated that in the event of Egyptian failure to reach a ceasefire understanding, they will go back to their-preferred brokers – Qatar and Turkey. But, it does not seem at this point that Israel and Egypt would agree.
c. Hamas decides to resume hostilities with Israel – focusing on limited but sustained rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli villages and towns near Gaza. In this option, Hamas believes that Israeli domestic discontent could undermine Israeli resilience in face of a small scale war of attrition. Hamas seriously considered this option to resume hostilities following the previous round of talks and as the truce was about to expire (August 13), but backed down and agreed to the extension of the truce in face of a notable Israeli military buildup and inter-Palestinian pressure.
d. Israeli unilaterally declares ending OPE and adopts several guidelines and a set of policy measures to ease the humanitarian situation on the ground (e.g., easing the restrictions on the imports of goods into Gaza and facilitating more freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank. Several Israeli political leaders – from across the Israeli political spectrum – seem to prefer this option. In this scenario, Israel would both retain its freedom of military action in Gaza, meaning that even in the foreseeable future Hamas leaders in Gaza would have to remain in their underground hidings.
e. In the absence of an understanding between Israel and the Palestinians, the EU, possibly supported by the US, would turn to the UN Security Council to impose a ceasefire agreement. A Security Council resolution would be diplomatically important, particularly if it refers specifically to the objective of disarming Gaza (as stipulated in the EU Foreign Affairs Council’s recent conclusions on August 15). In operational terms however, it is highly doubtful that in itself, the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution will transform the reality on the ground.
It is important to stress that the second set of scenarios are not mutually exclusive and reflect varying degrees of compatibility. Said otherwise, in the event of a breakdown in negotiations, the Palestinian terrorist factions in Gaza might seek to start a war of attrition against Israel, while Israel will introduce unilateral measures that will alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but retain its freedom to conduct military operations. This appears to be, and at this stage, the more likely scenario.