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Analysis: The day after the Gaza fighting stops

All wars end. Always. What does not always end is the enmity, the agonies or the hatreds, but the wars end. Just like in chess – even if there is a stalemate, the game ends. And so, too, it will be with the current fighting in Gaza. But what will the contours of such an ending look like when it does arrive?

To follow the current international commentary on social media is to find a an unending flow of near-apocalyptic predictions of (or hopes for) the collapse of Israel, its thorough-going international isolation, or, even, the convening of an International Criminal Court tribunal to have a serious têteàtête with Benyamin Netanyahu and his cabinet. Less frequently, but still out there, are calls for the annihilation of Hamas as a force, the reoccupation of Gaza and the ending, “once and for all,” of that group’s strength or presence in the region. Yet others will insist the US, with a mere snap of its fingers, could end Gaza’s agonies if only it chose to do so, save for the fact of some mysterious, magic hold over America’s will by Israel.

All of these daydreams are misplaced.

When the current fighting finally does end, will Israel still be standing there, a little bloodied, but nevertheless still an overwhelming military force in the region? Yes. Concurrently, will Hamas still be there, a force in Gaza and a major irritant to Israeli objectives, perhaps somewhat weakened, wobbly, but still standing? Yes to that one, too. But, will the balance when that day comes be what it was before the current fighting, or, will the power dynamic be rather different than it was just a couple of months ago? More than likely, yes to that question as well. And maybe that’s the key.

But as the jets and rockets are stilled, attention will turn to what happens to make that continue to remain true, even as Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent effort to midwife a larger, more comprehensive agreement have now come to nothing.

As of this writing, the Israeli assault on Gaza continues – clearly designed to pummel Hamas into inaction, to find and destroy all of the tunnels from Gaza into Israel and, concurrently, to eliminate Hamas’ command and control structures and its people. This has come with the inevitable “collateral damage” that has now reached well over a thousand deaths (mostly non-combatants) – and yet more wounded. In the meantime, Hamas continues to fire off its store of rockets into Israel – although those rockets are, for the most part, being intercepted in mid-air by the US-supplied Iron Dome anti-missile system, without causing major damage or casualties.

Nonetheless, despite the fact these rockets are, for the most part, being destroyed in mid-flight, the rockets continue to disrupt Israeli daily life, driving hundreds of thousands into air raid shelters on a continuing basis. Rather than wearing down support for their army’s actions, the threat of these rockets seems to be hardening popular public support for Israeli military actions in Gaza. Just as clearly, the Israeli military strikes against Gaza that have brought combat to so many, may have similarly hardened support for Hamas – even among those who were not in its corner prior to the current hostilities.

But a ceasefire of some type will eventually emerge. (Shortly after this story was submitted, there were reports of an unconditional 72-hour ceasefire deal, to start 8:00 local time on Thursday morning – Ed) And if so, what happens to the status of the current Israeli and Egyptian border closings from Gaza, the Israeli maritime blockade of Gaza, those tunnels from Gaza into Israel, the future of any further Israeli incursions into Gaza, and, ultimately, the international status of Gaza, the evolution of an independent Palestinian state comprising Gaza and some, most or all of the West Bank, the final disposition of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the status of East Jerusalem and then, ultimately, too, the future of the joint Palestinian Authority administration as a Palestinian national government? And allied to all of those questions – what of the near-term future of the geopolitical circumstances of Israel and the West Bank/Gaza in the larger Middle East system? (Maybe all of this is just a little too much weight to put on one evolving, tentative cease-fire, so let’s think small for a moment and see where that takes things.)

At least for this current moment, the real pressures for stopping the fighting run against internal Israeli pressures to keep at it until the Hamas’ capacity to launch rockets (or resupply themselves with such weapons) is crippled. In fact, that Egypt-led plan to draw the fighting to a halt and return to what effectively was the status quo ante, came a cropper some two weeks earlier after the Israelis accepted it and Hamas declined to do so. Observers argued that this decision was largely not opposed within Gaza, given the residents’ hatred of the blockade – and presumably also a fear of Hamas reprisals to those who advocated acceptance of the proposal.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Kerry’s efforts got a cold shoulder from the Israelis when he suggested Hamas’ demands to end the blockade should be on the table – and as he also brushed aside new Israeli calls for Hamas’ demilitarization. Still, the fighting will end at some point, and when it does, there are several different scenarios of what that would look like:

Scenario One: Israel declares victory and just leaves.

Way back during the Vietnam War, Vermont Senator George Aiken – weary of the unending carnage across the Pacific, the daily body counts on television, and the official dissembling about victories that were just around the corner and that ever-elusive light at the end of the tunnel – once snapped at an administration official testifying at a Senate hearing that if they really wanted to be finished with Vietnam, all they had to do was line up lots of boats along that unhappy nation’s coastline, march the troops onto those same boats, declare victory, cast off, and come home.

If one parses Israeli government comments carefully, analysts argue, Israeli officials are saying that the operations in Gaza are designed to eliminate the Hamas-constructed tunnels designed to provide avenues of attack inside Israel. The military has already said it has found over twenty such tunnels, and that they have a few more yet to find before that task is done. Conceivably, therefore, once the Israeli forces have done that, they could, if they so choose, simply declare their “mission accomplished”, roll out an informal, unilaterally announced cease-fire – and then see where things went from there.

Given that eventuality, Hamas, in turn, might then choose to look around at the devastation already inflicted on the territory and – again, informally – accept that cease-fire, as is, especially when its stock of rockets began to draw down without significant resupply. The twist in this scenario is that given all the losses so far on the Hamas/Gaza side, Hamas might well feel compelled to insist on something to sweeten the pot, presumably a relaxation of the blockade, reopened border crossings, or perhaps a commitment by the Israelis to fund Gaza civil servants and civil services. Without such informal reciprocity, however, Hamas rockets would likely start flying again and in that eventuality, things would again spiral down to where they were when this most recent round of hostilities started – or until Hamas ran out of rockets.

Scenario Two: Israel decides to clamp down completely

Regardless of the huge military and social cost – as well as the much-increased level of international opprobrium it would generate, it is also possible the Israeli government might elect to reoccupy the entire Gaza territory to clamp down on all forms of security threats – from their perspective. This would, of course, also bring the cost of the fighting to every community in Israel, what with hundreds of military fatalities, increased mobilization of reserves and its knock-on effect on the economy, and the tough circumstances that would come from its imposition a second time of some very problematic rule over 1.8 million Gaza residents.

Given the instability and severe costs of such a reoccupation strategy, both on the people in Gaza and on the Israelis, pressures could well build for increased international engagement on the ground – seemingly channelling the last few episodes of the TV series, “West Wing,” when the fictional President Bartlett committed US troops to this very area to manage a peace between Israelis and their opponents. Or, perhaps more realistically, such engagement might echo the evident success of the Multilateral Force and Observers (MFO) unit that has effectively patrolled the Sinai border region between Israel and Egypt since the early 1980s – through several changes of leadership in both nations. Of course, that could even lead to opportunities for international commitments to rebuild the battered Gaza territory – as long as international donors could be assured such support wouldn’t simply be destroyed yet again in any subsequent round of fighting.

Scenario Three: The Palestinian Authority asserts authority over the border with Egypt

Hamas (and naturally most Gaza residents) want an end to the blockade on Gaza imposed back in 2007 after Hamas took control of the territory from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. They had won the 2006 election, but the PA had then sidelined them afterwards. Nevertheless, the Israeli bottom line remains that it is virtually unthinkable they could acquiesce in fully open borders for Gaza by land, sea or air – as long as Hamas has a monopoly on the territory’s political and internal security authorities. Regardless of almost any external pressures to the contrary, the Israeli government would find it impossible to allow fully open borders for Gaza with Hamas in charge, lest even bigger rockets and weapons than already in use enter the territory to be deployed against Israel – or perhaps triggering a wave of suicide bombings reminiscent of life in the early 2000s

One potential alternative would be to place just the Egypt/Gaza border area near Rafah under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Egypt has also been reluctant to allow Hamas control over its border crossing (sensing that would lead to Hamas supporters infiltrating into Egypt where it has problems with control over the wild Sinai district), but it has not expressed the same unwillingness for an open border towards the possibility of PA control. By also keeping their border shut, the Egyptians seem to have washed their hands of any role in the sorting out of Gaza’s future, saying effectively that the territory’s problems are somebody else’s concern.

But putting the PA right on the border could conceivably be spun as a modest win-win-win-win-win for everyone – what is known in the international negotiations trade as confidence building measures. This line of argument would read: Hamas’ actions ended the siege (go ahead, take a curtain call); the PA is once again large-and-in-charge in Gaza; the Israeli government gets to say it didn’t give in due to threats or the actuality of it but, rather, to the formalities of agreements; the people in Gaza gain a palpable sense of relief and the reality of increased access to the outside world finally; and Egypt becomes the big, big hero of the day for brokering the deal.

Scenario Four: the PA takes over authority over all of Gaza

This one is a harder stretch than just the border region, but it should be recalled that the blockade came into effect following the Hamas takeover of Gaza. While the initial impetus for the blockade was probably planned to both prevent Hamas from arming itself further, as well as to punish the inhabitants sufficiently such that they would push Hamas out of control in retribution, perversely for the Israelis, the real effect has only been to restrain Hamas somewhat by virtue of Israeli border security measures – but with rather indifferent results, as the shower of rockets headed their way has now clearly demonstrated.

But, under this scenario, Hamas could call everyone’s bluff if it agreed to recognition of Israel, to adhere to all previous undertakings, and renounce violence in some formal way. Such a dramatic volte-face might well provoke – or embarrass – the Israelis into ending the entire blockade in return. Now, the chances of this larger, more all-encompassing course seem lower than the more modest version – if for no other reason than it effectively would be asking Hamas cease being what it has been designed to be in the first place.

Still, the tantalizing principle is out there that if there were no Hamas in control of Gaza, there would be no rationale for an Israeli blockade. And the framework for such a path actually does exist – at least on paper. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas actually did sign that “unity government” agreement a couple of months earlier, even if there was no realistic expectation Hamas really was about to relinquish its control over Gaza to some overarching unity government.

But, if this, so far, “on paper only” unity government could deliver significant blockade relief, Hamas would probably find it hard to oppose it – most especially if this came with some generous financial support sweeteners from the Gulf states and Western nations and financial institutions. The challenge – and potential stumbling block here – would be for Israel to take a step into the unknown with this new arrangement as well, rather than the draconian path they used this time. The downside for an Israeli government that approved such an arrangement would come if they agreed to this but rockets still came their way, only this time under a PA administration insignia. Consequently, under a PA administration over Gaza, the Israelis would almost certainly find it harder to ride in to deal with the rockets than in the circumstances pertaining now.

However, at least in theory, the game changer going forward, and leading the combatants towards one or another of these scenarios – and away from the destruction and death of the current fighting – is a realization that the region’s other Arab nations have largely stayed out of this particular fight, even rhetorically, save perhaps ISIS in its control over parts of Syria and Iraq. This realization is surely beginning to put pressure on Hamas in a way not seen previously.

Or, as David Kirkpatrick, writing in the New York Times the other day, observed, “Battling Palestinian militants in Gaza two years ago, Israel found itself pressed from all sides by unfriendly Arab neighbors to end the fighting. Not this time. After the military ouster of the Islamist government in Cairo last year, Egypt has led a new coalition of Arab states — including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — that has effectively lined up with Israel in its fight against Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip. That, in turn, may have contributed to the failure of the antagonists to reach a negotiated cease-fire even after more than three weeks of bloodshed. ‘The Arab states’ loathing and fear of political Islam is so strong that it outweighs their allergy to Benjamin Netanyahu’ said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington and a former Middle East negotiator under several presidents. ‘I have never seen a situation like it, where you have so many Arab states acquiescing in the death and destruction in Gaza and the pummelling of Hamas,’ he said. ‘The silence is deafening.’ ”

While the situation in Gaza is now a grim one; and regardless of those current circumstances, it is just as true that sooner or later the fighting this time around will stop as well. And almost regardless of what comes next, no one is going to be completely happy with the next outcome. The real question, therefore, is under what terms and conditions this cessation of fighting will again happen – as well as how soon it will occur. Even the most obdurate politician is usually realist enough to know that eventually they must accept some of the facts on the ground and come to terms with them somehow – even as they simultaneously also push for the kinds of compromises that may allow them to fight another day. DM

Photo: Palestinian firefighters try to put out the fire in a bus after Israeli airstrikes in the central Gaza City on, 31 July 2014. Two weeks after starting its ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, Israel has mobilized 16,000 more reserve troops. The number of Palestinians killed has climbed to 119 as the toll from attacks on a UN school and a market rose, said Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra. EPA/MOHAMMED SABER

For still more speculations, along with the millions of words being distributed on this issue, read more at:

  • UN Chief Calls Attack on Gaza School ‘Shameful’ at ABC News;
  • Around the Halls: The Crisis in Gaza Deepens at the Brookings Institution website;
  • ANALYSIS: Amid war, endgames in Gaza emerge at the AP;
  • Arab Leaders, Viewing Hamas as Worse Than Israel, Stay Silent at the New York Times;
  • Zionism and Israel’s War with Hamas in Gaza, a column by Roger Cohen in the New York Times;
  • No War Is an Island – When Middle East Conflicts Become One, a column by David Brooks in the New York Times;
  • Netanyahu vows to complete Gaza tunnels destruction at Global Post.
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