UNEASY TRUCE, ISRAEL CONTINUES TO RESIST 'LIFT THE BLOCKADE' DEMAND
Copy of Three day ceasfire comes into efect in Gaza
NEW DELHI: Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to another 72 hour ceasefire, which came into effect at midnight on Sunday. The agreement comes as a similar three day truce, that marked negotiations between the two sides to arrive at a more permanent solution, failed on Friday. Renewed violence resulted in 16 more Palestinians being killed, bringing the official death toll to over 1,917 Palestinians, three-quarters of whom were civilians and one-third were children, according to United Nations figures.
This is the second Egypt-brokered ceasefire in the span of a week, with the previous ceasefire failing as the Palestinians said that Israel was refusing to accept key demands. Hamas spokesperson, Fawzi Barhum, was quoted by the AFP saying, “all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, have agreed not to renew the ceasefire because [Israel] is refusing to accommodate our demands, but negotiations continue in Cairo.”
Palestinian demands include the lifting of the blockade on Gaza and the release of 125 prisoners. A spokesperson using the nom-de-guerre, Abu Obeida, reiterated the Palestinian position in a televised address, saying that “If there is an agreement, it will be possible to extend the truce, but if there is not, we will ask the delegation to withdraw from the talks.”
As the ceasefire ended, the Israeli military was ordered to respond to rockets that were fired by Hamas Friday morning. “The renewed rocket attacks by terrorists at Israel are unacceptable, intolerable and shortsighted. Hamas' bad decision to breach the ceasefire will be pursued by the IDF (Israel Defence Forces), we will continue to strike Hamas, its infrastructure, its operatives and restore security for the State of Israel,” Israeli military spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, said in a statement.
Although the acceptance of a ceasefire by both sides is encouraging, efforts to arrive at a more permanent solution will continue to remain difficult. Palestine has maintained that its key most demand is the lifting of the blockade on Gaza. Ma’an news agency quoted senior Hamas official and member of the Palestinian delegation, Ezzat al-Rishq, saying, “there is a consensus among all the Palestinian factions that Gaza can't return to a blockade... it is a natural right of the people of Gaza to live (freely) as any other people in the world.”
This is a demand Israel has consistently resisted. The situation is complicated by the volatile situation on the ground, with any hostilities -- such as the rockets fired from Gaza Friday morning and the Israeli military response -- threatening to escalate into a full blown Israeli assault. This reality is evinced by a previous UN-US brokered 72 hour ceasefire that failed 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. On Sunday, Israel 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 John Kerry 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 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 just 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.