Given his central role in instigating the present pandemonium in Iraq, former UK prime minister Tony Blair was always a curious choice as the UN envoy for peace in the Middle East. Palestinians in particular thought Blair was biased towards Israel in his official former role as UN peacemaker.
On the first anniversary of the ceasefire that halted the most recent Israel-Gaza conflict, it is thus interesting to read that Blair has only now met the upper echelons of Hamas – one of the principal movers and shakers in the Palestine-Israel conflict.
To be fair to Blair, boycotting Hamas was the official policy of the international Quartet on the Middle East – the UN, the US, the EU and Russia. The Quartet’s conditions of lifting the boycott required the movement to:
a) renounce violence;
b) recognise Israel; and
c) promise to adhere to previous agreements between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation/Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel.
Under discussion is the prospect of a long-term ceasefire between Hamas – the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip – and Israel. Specifically, the ceasefire would be predicated on Israel ending its crippling blockade of the coastal enclave. This would fulfil Hamas’ desire to restore a sense of normalcy to everyday life in the Gaza Strip, rebuild the damage from the 2014 war and alleviate poverty through increased trade via a sea corridor.
A peace deal with pros and cons
These developments are both promising and concerning. On the one hand, a separate peace deal with Hamas would reinforce Palestinian divisions in accordance with Israel’s divide-and-rule policy.
Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have been politically divided since Hamas seized power in Gaza in a pre-emptive counter-coup in 2007. Geographically speaking, however, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been separated since the First Intifada in the early 1990s. As a result, divergent cultural norms have arisen in the two territories.
On the other hand, the isolation and poverty of the Gaza Strip mean it’s a tinderbox that’s perennially waiting to explode – or, as the Israeli euphemism might have it, a lawn in need of mowing.
Also, nobody with a shred of conscience wants to see a repeat of last year’s war. The conflict killed some 2200 Palestinians – nearly seven in ten of whom the UN says were civilians (Israel says one in two) – and 70 Israelis, the vast majority of whom were serving in the armed forces.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that no negotiations are taking place, he has indicated he’s willing to listen to what Blair puts on the table.
What’s in it for Israel and Hamas?
Negotiating separately with Hamas is appealing to Israel on several levels.
First, a long-term ceasefire will restore some normalcy to the Israeli south.
Second, unlike negotiating with the PA in the West Bank, peace with Hamas does not require any territorial concessions. Israel unilaterally evacuated its Gaza settlements a decade ago.
However, many analysts saw the August 2005 disengagement from Gaza as merely an Israeli feint to distract the international community from its consolidation of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Dov Weiglass, a former aide to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, publicly described the disengagement as “formaldehyde” intended to freeze the peace process.
It is thus interesting that Hamas has not demanded a halt to settlement construction in the West Bank as a precondition to negotiate a long-term ceasefire. The ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements has long been one of the major sticking points in Israeli-PA negotiations.
The PA is bitterly opposed to any such deal between Hamas and Israel because it does not require a halt to settlement building in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Any such deal would also be a further sign of PA irrelevance and weaken its bargaining position.
Third, opening up Gaza to the outside world will foster a sense of normalcy among the Gazan population and undercut radicalism. Undercutting radicalism is especially important given the rise of Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates. A December 2014 poll by the Palestinian Centre for Survey and Policy Research found that a concerning 12% of Palestinians believed IS represents “true Islam”.
Supposed IS affiliates in the Gaza Strip have already claimed responsibility for several attacks against Hamas and for firing rockets at Israel.
Although Hamas also wants a return to normalcy in the Gaza Strip, it is potentially a double-edged sword for the movement. This is because much of its support base is derived from muqawama (resistance in all of its forms) and summud (steadfastness). Contact with the outside world will broaden the horizons of many Gazans, which in turn could undercut Hamas’ appeal among the territory’s population.
For Hamas, a deal with Israel and the opening of borders would bolster its international legitimacy as ruler of the quasi-statelette in the Gaza Strip. The opening of Gaza’s borders would enhance Hamas’ domestic legitimacy as well. Hamas would be able to claim that it is the one Palestinian political organisation that stands up to Israel and gets things done.
This is in marked contrast to the endless PA-Israeli negotiations over the past 25 years. These have merely served to entrench Israel’s hold over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
As Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad, recently opined:
Hamas wants to achieve a sizeable benefit in terms of the quality of life in Gaza, and wants a degree of acceptance … It would obviously be a two-way street. Hamas would have to tread a different route than it does now, but we have not given them any options but confrontation.
A long-term ceasefire could potentially – finally – put to rest the tired debate around the essentially defunct Hamas charter.
The concerns that a separate long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel would irrevocably sever the ties between th West Bank and the Gaza Strip are very real and should not be dismissed lightly. However, the images emanating from the conflict in Gaza a year ago broke the hearts of millions of people around the world. That tragedy must not be repeated when there are other options on the table that might give peace a chance.