With intensifying international pressure to end hostilities, a brief lull in fighting currently prevails in Gaza. But a formal ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has proven elusive and the death toll continues to mount following sporadic attacks.
Carnegie experts assess how the crisis will impact Palestinians, Israelis, and the rest of the Middle East.
- What are the immediate implications for both Israelis and Palestinians?
- How can Gaza be rebuilt after this latest round of fighting?
- How will the conflict with Israel impact the Palestinian leadership and relations between Hamas and Fatah?
- What are the implications of the turmoil in Gaza for Egypt?
- How will the conflict in Gaza influence regional dynamics?
Marwan Muasher: As a result of Israel’s incursion into Gaza, Hamas is now more popular than Fatah according to a recent poll—for the first time in years. And if Israel’s intention is to disarm or weaken Hamas, the historical record does not suggest these objectives will be achieved.
Three earlier ground incursions in the last six years, and another ground war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, failed to weaken Israel’s opponents. And they didn’t disarm either organization. Both Hamas and Hezbollah have actually strengthened their military capabilities over time.
Israel seems to be pursuing tactical objectives to appease its domestic audience and the hardliners in the Israeli cabinet—at the expense of thousands of Palestinian casualties.
Hamas appears to be better prepared this time. While the rockets launched against Israel have not resulted in much physical damage or the loss of Israeli life, they might shatter the false sense of security Israelis have enjoyed as a result of the security wall over the last few years. Further, scores of Israeli soldiers have died.
Meanwhile, Palestinian public opinion—as well as the mood across the Arab street—has significantly shifted in favor of Hamas. The pictures of civilian deaths on Arab television networks have been horrific, particularly the children and women. Israel’s claim of exercising caution to avoid hitting civilian targets is not believed in the Arab world.
A lasting ceasefire seems unlikely to occur soon, with little interest from Israel and Hamas for one and no effective interlocutor who can talk to both sides. When one takes effect, as will likely happen eventually, it will probably be similar to earlier ones and fail to move the peace process forward in any way.
Without addressing the core issue—Israel’s occupation—it’s safe to expect more incursions in the future, followed by ceasefires that won’t last, followed by other incursions. Those who will continue to bear the brunt of these actions are the Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza. Palestinians, therefore, do not see any chance that there will be an end of the occupation anytime soon.
Maha Yahya: Despite the horrifying human toll of the latest Israel offensive against Gaza, Palestinians are rallying in even greater numbers around Hamas. They have rejected any ceasefire proposal that does not end the crippling seven-year blockade of Gaza; a blockade that has been described as a form of collective punishment that keeps Palestinians trapped in the largest “open-air prison camp” in the world.
The end of this blockade is a central point of contention and a critical component of any sustainable ceasefire agreement. It is also crucial to addressing the tremendous challenges of rebuilding the lives and livelihoods of Palestinians in Gaza, and to longer-term development, stability, and even security.
Reconstruction in the wake of previous Israeli operations of 2008 and 2012 is still incomplete. Palestinians in Gaza are kept in place by a siege of sea, land, and air routes. A visit to the doctor is an ordeal with frequent shortages in vital medicines. The blockade also prevents the flow of goods and capital and undercuts all potential economic activities except for smuggling.
With limited economic activity and severely damaged infrastructure causing infrequent access to electricity and water, around 80 percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million inhabitants are living below the $2 poverty line. Access to vital health and education services as well as farmland and fishing waters are severely curtailed. Only one truckload of exported goods can leave Gaza per day.
The blockade has clearly failed in its stated goal of maintaining Israeli security. But it has succeeded in impoverishing Palestinians, and rendering the survival of around 75 percent of Gazans contingent on aid. In the aftermath of the current offensive, there is no escaping the considerable humanitarian support that will be needed to help Gazans survive in the short and possibly medium terms. This will exacerbate their reliance on aid and on the political parties that manage to sustain them.
To ensure that international aid ceases to be a substitute for the absence of addressing the underlying causes of the conflict, any ceasefire agreement must include an end to the siege of Gaza, allowing residents to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. The lifting of the blockade should not be limited to the construction materials that are desperately needed for rebuilding decades of damage to homes, institutions, and infrastructure. It must include access to farmlands and fishing waters, the entry of raw material for industries to operate, and the outflow of produced goods.
Sustaining the blockade is unconscionable and will lead to further instability and conflict.
How will the conflict with Israel impact the Palestinian leadership and relations between Hamas and Fatah?
Nathan J. Brown: The events of the past few months—the collapse of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace efforts, the weakness of the Fatah-Hamas agreement to form a national unity government, and the recent round of fighting between Hamas and Israel—have highlighted the tremendous weaknesses of both Hamas and Fatah. But before the recent round of fighting, Fatah appeared to have the upper hand.
Now many of those issues are back on the table, with international actors occasionally floating trial balloons, indicating some openness on issues such as salaries, elections, and the blockade. Any relaxation of those issues can be trumpeted by Hamas as a victory—and the Ramallah leadership can be portrayed as a bystander at best (and perhaps far worse) in the war in Gaza. Indeed, Ramallah has had to play catch up, bringing its diplomatic positions into line with Hamas more than Hamas has had to toe the Ramallah line.
But such short-term zero-sum analysis, while accurate enough for now, may understate an unusual international opportunity. It is now increasingly accepted that the policies to deal with Gaza and Hamas since 2006—isolation, sanction, avoidance, blockade, and subversion—have only entrenched a deeply problematic long-term outcome.
Unlike past rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas, there seems to be some limited international openness to other options to support Palestinian reconciliation, elections, and a lessening of the international blockade on Gaza that allows for some kinds of economic and political recovery. Although this is only a possibility, not a probability, the bankruptcy of past policies just might lead to new thinking by the Palestinians and by Israel and its allies.
Michele Dunne: The current Hamas-Israel war in Gaza presents risk and opportunities for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
On the opportunity side, the military capabilities of Hamas—an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, against which Sisi has waged an intense campaign inside Egypt—are being at least temporarily degraded. The conflict has also reinforced the international perception of Egypt’s integral role in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which might help Sisi restore U.S. military assistance.
But the history of conflicts in Gaza shows that they seldom work out to the benefit of anyone other than extremists, and the risks for Sisi are many. Already Egyptian diplomacy has been shown as hollow; unlike past conflicts when Egypt was able to broker deals because it had direct contact with all sides (Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority), this time Cairo’s ceasefire proposal flopped immediately because of the lack of coordination with Hamas.
Apart from doubts about Egypt’s effectiveness as a regional peace broker, a more tangible risk for Sisi is that he might come under pressure to take on greater responsibility for Gaza, a hot potato his predecessors tried mightily to avoid getting stuck holding. Hamas will seek guarantees of access to and from Gaza via the Egyptian border at Rafah, which Sisi will be loath to grant due to his concerns about the impact on the already unstable Sinai region. Sisi will also want to avoid taking on responsibilities currently held by Israel such as power generation, access for humanitarian assistance, or preventing further rocket or other attacks.
The Gaza conflict holds risks for Sisi in domestic Egyptian politics as well. Right now Egyptians are relatively mute regarding the Palestinian issue, with the exception of some small street protests and efforts by secular opposition politicians to get a humanitarian convoy into Gaza. In fact pro-military pundits have been vociferous in their desire to see Israel defeat Hamas, continuing the anti-Brotherhood themes prevalent in public discourse since the July 2013 coup.
But while former president Hosni Mubarak was often suspected of lacking sympathy for Palestinians, Sisi’s more open siding with Israel ventures into uncharted waters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s July 20 statement that Hamas’s rejection of Egyptian-backed ceasefire agreement provided “international legitimacy” for an expanded Israeli operation created the impression, as some analysts have suggested, that Egypt deliberately put out the proposal to fail.
In view of the rapidly escalating toll in Palestinian civilian lives, that is a narrative that could come back to haunt Sisi in Egypt’s highly polarized and volatile political climate.
Lina Khatib: The latest Gaza crisis highlights two key trends in Arab relations in the Middle East.
First, there appears to be a degree of fatigue among Arab countries regarding the crisis and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process more widely. Unlike the two past confrontations between Hamas and Israel, the latest round has generated comparatively little reaction from Arab countries.
The combination of the vicious cycle of the Palestine-Israel peace process, domestic crises (in Libya and Tunisia), and cross-border crises (in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq) have lessened interest in what is going on in Gaza. This had made the Palestine problem—previously the center of attention in the Arab world—appear like an isolated, outlying matter. Even the Arab League’s engagement in the current crisis has only been in the form of declaring support for the Egyptian ceasefire initiative.
Second, Qatar, the expected regional mediator, has largely taken a secondary role in efforts to end the fighting. Qatar’s retreat from center stage and its relegation to a communication channel between Egypt and Hamas can be attributed to Saudi pressure.
This pressure not only aims to diminish Qatar’s regional aspirations after Doha’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood (Saudi Arabia’s rival), but also aims to bolster the regional position of Riyadh’s ally, Egypt’s Sisi. Saudi Arabia has even chosen to initially play a backstage role in brokering a ceasefire so that Egypt can shine.
The Gaza crisis therefore helps crystalize emerging dynamics in Arab relations. We are likely to see Egypt vying for a greater regional role, Qatar playing a diminished role, and Saudi Arabia occupying a redefined yet resurrected role. And engagement in the myriad of domestic and regional crises will continue to overshadow attention on the Palestine-Israel conflict.