Third stage sees war and diplomacy proceed together

The Israeli war on Gaza, which has now entered its third week and has claimed, so far, the lives of more than 850 Palestinians, mostly civilians, is apparently now in a new phase, where war and diplomacy combine.

Egypt, which has been subject to the most stinging criticisms from Hamas and other political Islamic parties in the region because it refuses to open the Rafah crossing, has finally managed to engage the leaderships of both Hamas and Israel in substantial and sustained indirect negotiations. The two delegations have been traveling for consultations with their respective leaderships in Damascus and Tel Aviv, while their Egyptian host is conducting shuttle diplomacy between them.

The Egyptian-led negotiations process has a chance of success and therefore deserves to be encouraged. This is first because Cairo succeeded in engaging the parties directly, especially Hamas. Second, Egypt will be an important party to any agreement, particularly because the talks have focused on the most significant aspect of a potential agreement, the Rafah crossing and the tunnels that link Gaza to Egypt.

Hamas dismissed the long delayed United Nations Security Council resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire primarily because it was not consulted. That was a strong message to all concerned parties, mostly Israel, the PA and the US. It was also a confirmation that one of Hamas’ objectives in this war is to achieve international recognition. In other words, Hamas, which has shown that it is the party that will fight Israel, is trying to say it is also the party with whom to make peace.

The war started with limited and defined objectives. These have since been modified. Israel wanted to stop rocket attacks from Gaza, and Hamas wanted an end to the blockade and the Israeli attacks and incursions. However, like other such major violent events, the war has gained its own dynamic. During the second week and the beginning of the third week, and as a result of failing to significantly weaken Hamas and force it to end rocket attacks, Israel expanded its attacks by occupying some of the populated areas including parts of Rafah.

In parallel, the political objectives are expanding to include "changing the rules of the game", according to the senior ministers running for re-election in Israel, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, while right winger Avigdor Lieberman foresees that "the end of the operation will come when there is complete control over Rafah and after that … the next level–the destruction of the authority of Hamas." This apparent change in position has led observers and analysts to wonder whether possible difficulties in achieving its limited objective of a new ceasefire with improved conditions will cause Israel to pursue a goal of regime change, which will require a full reoccupation of Gaza.

Hamas, in turn, having been able to absorb the first and very heavy Israeli air strikes and noting the overwhelming Arab public support it has received, has also changed its objectives from the narrow aim of surviving and ending the aggression along with the blockade. In his last speech from Damascus, Khalid Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader, said that Israel’s attack would shorten the life of the Jewish state, and Hamas is now keen to take advantage of its regional popularity to assert its leadership among Palestinians and achieve regional legitimacy.

Elsewhere, and as usual, the media has been potently manipulated by Israel and has thus contributed to prolonging the war. Israel used its blockade of Gaza to prevent international journalists from entering the beleaguered Strip. As a result, Israel has had a much easier time of imposing its agenda on journalists eager to cover the war but stuck on the Israeli side of the Gaza border and thus with access only to areas where Palestinian rockets land. Lest we forget, something Israeli officials are trying to make us do, these mostly homemade rockets have killed a total of 18 Israelis in eight years, no patch on the modern armory of the Israeli army and the predictably enormous and disproportionate bloodshed it has caused in Gaza.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, the Fateh leadership and the Palestinian Authority have received a triple blow. Israel’s war on Gaza has transformed them into bystanders. They are neither party to the war, nor will they play any significant role in ending it. This helpless position follows on from the failure of the Annapolis process that the Fateh leadership gambled on. On top of that, the PA has to play an ugly policing role in the West Bank to prevent protesters in demonstrations from reaching Israeli checkpoints and Hamas supporters from manipulating the massive popular support for Hamas to destabilize the PA’s control.