During its first 14 days, the Israeli military aggression on the Gaza Strip has left a toll of over 500 dead, the vast majority of them civilians, and many more injured. Thousands of houses were targeted and destroyed together with other essential civilian infrastructures. Over one hundred thousand civilians have been displaced. By the time you will read this article the numbers will have grown higher, and no real truce seems in sight. When I say real, I mean practicable, agreeable to both sides and sustainable for some time.
The Israeli government, followed by Western media and governments, was quick to put the blame on Hamas. Hamas, they claim, had an opportunity to accept a truce brokered by Egypt, and refused it. Others have already explained at length why this proposal crafted without any consultations with Hamas, was hard to accept by Hamas.
Much less noticed by the Western media was that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had meanwhile proposed a 10-year truce on the basis of 10 very reasonable conditions. While Israel was too busy preparing for the ground invasion, why didn’t anyone in the diplomatic community spend a word about this proposal? The question is all the more poignant as the proposal was in essence in line with what many international experts as well as the United Nations have asked for years now, and included some aspects Israel had already considered as feasible requests in the past.
The main demands of this proposal revolve around lifting the Israeli siege in Gaza through the opening of its borders with Israel to commerce and people, the establishment of an international seaport and airport under U.N. supervision, the expansion of the permitted fishing zone in the Gaza sea to 10 kilometers, and the revitalization of Gaza industrial zone. None of these demands is new. The United Nations among others have repeatedly demanded the lifting of the siege, which is illegal under international law, as a necessary condition to end the dire humanitarian situation in the Strip. The facilitation of movement of goods and people between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip had already been stipulated in the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) signed between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2005. Even the construction of a port and the possibility of an airport in Gaza had already been stipulated in the AMA, though the actual implementation never followed. The requested increase of the permitted fishing zone is less than what envisaged in the 1994 Oslo Agreements and it was already part of the 2012 ceasefire understanding. Unhindered fishermen’s access to the sea, without fear of being shot or arrested and having boats and nets confiscated by Israeli patrols is essential to the 3000 Gaza fishermen struggling to survive today by fishing in a limited area which is overfished and heavily polluted. The revitalization of the Gaza industrial zone, which has progressively been dismantled since the 2005 disengagement and by continuous military operations, was already considered a crucial Palestinian interest at the time of the 2005 Disengagement.
The proposed truce also demands the withdrawal of Israeli tanks from the Gaza border and the Internationalization of the Rafah Crossing and its placement under international supervision. The presence of international forces on the borders and the withdrawal of the Israeli army requested by Hamas is unsurprising, considered the heavy toll of casualties by Israeli fire in the Access Restricted Areas near the Israeli border (i.e. an area of 1.5km along the border comprising 35% of Gaza land and 85% of its whole arable land). The international presence should guarantee that Egyptian and Israeli security concerns are equally met.
The proposal also requests Israel to release the Palestinian prisoners whom had been freed as part of the deal to liberate Gilat Shalit and were arrested after the killing of the three Israeli youths in June 2014 in the West Bank; that Israel refrains from interfering in the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah; and that the permits for worshippers to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque be eased.
Not only are these conditions sensible in light of previous agreements but, especially those who pertain to the lift of the siege, are the minimum standards that Hamas and the people of Gaza could accept in the current circumstances. As Raji Sourani reports, the most common sentence from people in Gaza after the announcement of the Egyptian ‘brokered’ ceasefire was “Either this situation really improves or it is better to just die”. The dire circumstances under which Gazans have lived in the last 7 years have indeed evoked in many the image of the enclave as “the world’s largest open air prison”. A prison which is overcrowded and where in 6 years there will no longer be enough drinkable water or capacity to provide other essential services, as a recent UN report denounces. Facing this gloomy context, for many the continuous launch of rockets from Gaza is a response to the siege and the harsh conditions imposed by the occupation.
One could imagine that an agreement on the basis of the Hamas proposal could not only stop the current round of hostilities but also pave the way towards a lasting solution of the conflict. However Israel has shown no interest in considering this proposal and continues to prefer the military option. As a result one wonders whether Israel really wants a long lasting resolution of the conflict. This resolution would necessarily require compromises on the Israeli side, including relinquishing control over the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu recently made it perfectly clear that this option is off the table. An eventual agreement between Israel and Hamas would further strengthen the legitimacy of Hamas in the newly achieved Palestinian unity, which is a prerequisite for any lasting peace. Legitimizing the Palestinian unity is something the Israeli government is avoiding like the plague as it would push forward their quest for justice in the international arena.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the international community – with the exception of Turkey and Qatar – has spent no words on the Hamas truce proposal although many of the points of the proposal already enjoy international support. This refusal to deal with the proposal is particularly problematic in the current context. Without any pressure by the international community, Israel, the party who has the upper hand in this conflict, will feel legitimized to keep refusing negotiations for a real truce with Hamas. Truces and negotiations are made with enemies not friends. International organizations and Western leaders, echoing Israel and the United States, maintain that Hamas is a terrorist organization and thus any direct negotiations with it are embargoed.
Hamas resorts to violence, which is often indiscriminate and targets civilians – also due to the lack of precision weapons. But so does Israel – no matter how sophisticated its weaponry is. If the point is to help parties negotiate, both parties have to be treated equally, encouraged to consider measures other than military ones and accept compromises based on international law. Especially when sensible proposals are on the table as in this case. The firm refusal to engage with Hamas at this point epitomizes the failure of the international community to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Unless the international community reverts this pattern by taking a honest stand grounded in international law and diplomacy, the plight of Gaza and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue.