TALKS COLLAPSE, ISRAEL RESUMES AIR STRIKES ON GAZA
The ceasefire talks have collapsed and fighting has resumed in Gaza
NEW DELHI: Heavy fighting resumed in the Gaza strip, few hours before an extended Egypt-brokered ceasefire was set to expire on Tuesday. At least three Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes, with Israel maintaining that it was responding to rocket fire as it reordered the opening of public bomb shelters within 80 kilometers of Gaza.
Palestine and Israel both withdrew their delegations, who were meeting in Cairo to negotiate a long-term solution, with both sides blaming the other for the failure of the talks. AP quoted Azzam al-Ahmad, leader of the Palestinian delegation saying that although the Palestinians had submitted a ceasefire proposal to the Egyptians, “it's clear the Israelis are not interested in the cease-fire. We did not hear from them. We were willing to, but we did not hear from them."
The Israelis, in turn, pinned the blame on Hamas. AP quoted Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev saying, “When Hamas broke the cease-fire and fired rockets into Israel, they also violated the premise of the talks, which were based on an unconditional and total cease-fire.”
It is not clear whether either side will resume talks, with both having previously indicated that this attempt was their last. The talks were seeming to be making headway amidst a week long truce (a 72 hour ceasefire was followed by a five day ceasefire, which was extended by an additional 24 hours and set to expire midnight on Tuesday). However, the wide disparity in positions between Israel and Palestine rendered the dialogue process shaky from the start, with the key Palestinian demand -- of lifting the eight year blockade on Gaza -- proving to be a complication.
Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri reiterated this position, saying, as quoted by AFP, "there is no way back from this. All these demands are basic human rights that do not need this battle or these negotiations. The only way to have security is for Palestinians to feel it first and have the blockade lifted.”
There was however, a limited breakthrough in the talks, with demands agreed to including Israel increasing the daily number of trucks into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom and Nahal Oz crossings to 600 from 250; allowing money transfers from the Palestinian Authority to Gaza to cover salaries of Hamas civil servants; the designated fishing zone will be extended to 12 nautical miles; and 500 permits will be issued to Gazans monthly to use the Erez crossing.
Ma’an news agency reported that Egypt had agreed to open the Rafah crossing, which will be monitored by Palestinian Authority Guards.
The points that required further negotiation were the focus of this round of talks. Ma’an news quoted Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader, saying that key Palestinian demands include a seaport and airport, release of dozens of prisoners who Israel re-arrested after releasing them in 2011 as part of the Shalit exchange, a creation of a safe passage between Israel and the Gaza strip, and the lifting of the eight year blockade on Gaza.
As Ma’an points out, the demands are consistent with the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and Palestine, but which Israel has failed to abide by, by refusing to negotiate with Hamas.
With both sides blaming the other for the failure of the talks, there is a likelihood of fresh violence in the Gaza strip -- that has claimed over 2000 Palestinian lives, including 541 children, 250 women and 95 elderly men, since Israel’s offensive on Gaza began on June 8.
The failure of this round of talks echoes the failure of a similar Egypt brokered ceasefire that failed a few weeks ago with the Palestinians saying that Israel was refusing to accept key demands. Qays Abu Layla, member of the Palestinian delegation to Cairo, told Ma’an news agency that Israel’s agenda was to return to the pre-war situation, whereas the lifting of the blockade on Gaza was the key Palestinian demand.
Similarly, a previous US-UN brokered 72-hour ceasefire collapsed within hours. Israel broke the ceasefire by pounding Rafah, killing over 60 people. The reason for the renewed hostilities was the alleged capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian fighters, who reportedly emerged from a tunnel near Rafah. Israel eventually declared the soldier dead, saying he had not been captured but was killed in battle. Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior official in the political wing of Hamas, told Turkish media that an Israeli soldier had been captured, but the incident took place prior to the acceptance of the ceasefire.
There have been several other attempts at a ceasefire, including one by US Secretary of State JohnKerry which was rejected by Israel, and a twelve hour humanitarian ceasefire called by the UN which could not be extended by an additional 24 hours. An earlier three-step ceasefire proposal by Egypt was accepted by the Israeli side, but rejected by the Palestinians.
Egypt has previously effectively played the role a mediator, negotiating a 2011 deal that released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and a 2012 ceasefire that followed eight days of conflict that left over a 160 people in Gaza dead. However, Hamas relationship with Egypt has soured since the the military ouster of Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, who had close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is considered an off-shoot. Former general and current Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is widely perceived to have taken a strong stand against Hamas, echoing the United State’s view that considers Hamas a terrorist outfit and a strategic threat.
A major bone of contention between Egypt and Hamas has been the shutting down of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, at the behest of the former. These tunnels served as a crucial economic lifeline for Gaza, and one of Hamas’ key demands has been the opening of the Rafah crossing between the two territories. The first Egyptian proposal however, referred only to crossings “between Israel and Gaza.”
Given the context and the differing stance of Sisi in comparison to Morsi, Egypt’s traditional role as a mediator in the region was compromised, with the ceasefire proposal being widely viewed as a pro-Israeli bailout by the Palestinians. The Egyptian leader however, defended Egypt’s efforts at mediation, saying that the Palestinian demand of an end to the blockade could be achieved once the ceasefire was in place. “What we want is that normal citizens in the Gaza Strip not be subjected to what they are going through now,” Sisi said, with Palestinians continuing to object to the terms that equated what the Palestinians consider a right to resistance with Israeli aggression.
Sisi’s words were perhaps too optimistic, as Palestine’s demand of ending the blockade has still not been addressed, despite the acceptance of a ceasefire and the commencement of talks.
The crisis in the region, which has claimed almost 2000 lives in over a month, follows the death of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir that sparked four days of violent crashes in Jerusalem. The Israeli police arrested six people in connection with Khdeir’s brutal death, who Palestinians maintain was killed to avenge the death of three Israeli teenagers whose bodies were found in the occupied West Bank.
Israel pinned the blame for the disappearance and execution of the three teenagers on Hamas, albeit with no certain evidence pointing to Hamas’ involvement. Israel responded to the killings by launching a massive security operation in the West Bank, rounding up Palestinians suspected of being Hamas operatives. The operation involved the tightening of Israel’s system of checkpoints, preventing Palestinians from the West Bank from entering Jerusalem, cancelling permits for prayer, and demolishing the homes of people labeled guilty without evidence or proof of their guilt or any recourse to the judicial process. The searches and mass arrests brought many Palestinians onto the streets in protest, leading to clashes in which at least five Palestinians were killed.
The developments are located in the context of heightened tensions between the two sides following a Palestinian unity deal involving Hamas and Fatah. The Palestine unity deal was the final straw leading to Israel pulling out of the US-led Israel-Palestine peace talks, which had hit various roadblocks on issues such as Israel’s demand that it be recognized as a “Jewish state,” which Palestinian Authority President Abbas did not agree to; the release of Palestinian prisoners after Israel reneged on an agreement to free prisoners in exchange for Palestine halting a push for membership to UN bodies; attacks and increased Israeli construction in besieged Gaza strip and West Bank territory as Palestinians consider Israeli incursion beyond the pre-1967 territorial lines to be illegal and an obstacle to peace, whereas Israel refuses to recognise what has been termed as the 'Green line' as a starting point for negotiations.