Egyptian cease-fire plan for Israel-Hamas conflict quickly unravels (+video)

Hamas faced a choice between a cease-fire that met almost none of its conditions or rejection that gave Israel diplomatic cover for further escalation.

By , Staff writer

[Editor's Note: The story was updated at 10:37 a.m. EST.]

For a week, Israel has pummeled the Gaza Strip with more than 1,400 air strikes. Today it delivered Hamas a diplomatic blow by accepting an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire.

That gave Hamas an unhappy choice between a deal that met virtually none of its conditions, or an Israeli escalation that would be harder to paint as sheer aggression rather than a response to ongoing rocket fire from Gaza.

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“If Hamas rejects the very public diplomatic offer here, then if the fighting renews, Israel can then pursue its military goals with a tremendous amount of international legitimacy behind it – something that was lacking prior to the outbreak of the hostilities,” said former Ambassador Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s envoy to Washington from 2009-13, on a call with foreign reporters.

After militants in Gaza fired more than 40 rockets into Israel today, Israel renewed its airstrikes on the territory, effectively aborting the cease-fire efforts. 

International opposition to Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza, which has brought thousands of protesters into Europe’s streets over the past week, won’t disappear overnight. More than 185 Palestinians have been killed in the strikes, among them many children, images of whom have reverberated around the globe and stoked anger toward Israel. And even before the Gaza conflict erupted, there were signs of growing momentum for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has asked the United Nations to provide “international protection” for Palestinians in the wake of the Gaza conflict and the July 2 kidnapping and murder of teenager Muhammed Abu Khudeir.

But Israel’s willingness to refrain from striking as Hamas continued to lob rockets is likely to give Israel added political cover internationally.

After days of Western leaders and the UN calling for a cease-fire, the Egyptian proposal has met with wide approval. Mr. Abbas last night said a cease-fire would protect "the blood of our people and our higher national interests.” The 22-member Arab League issued a statement to “demand all parties concerned accept the Egyptian initiative.”

Hamas’s armed wing rejected the proposal, saying it hadn’t been consulted. "If what has been circulated is true, this initiative means kneeling and submissiveness and so we completely refuse it and to us, it's not worth the ink used in writing it," said the Al Qassam Brigades this morning.

But senior official Moussa Abu Marzouk said the movement was “still in consultation.” And a statement from top leaders was expected later today. But Israel stopped waiting for an answer after hours of incoming rocket fire. 

What Hamas wants

Hamas seeks more than an end to strikes, according to numerous sources, including Israeli negotiator Gershon Baskin, who helped establish a backchannel with Hamas in 2011. Those discussions led to the 2011 release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Those demands reportedly include:

  1. Freeing 54 prisoners who were released in the Shalit deal but rearrested in response to the murder of three Israeli teenagers, as well as hundreds of others detained in the crackdown;
  2. Opening of Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt;
  3. Ending the siege on Gaza;
  4. Extending the fishing zone off the Gaza coast, currently set at three miles despite a 2012 agreement to double it;
  5. Pay the salaries of 40,000 Hamas employees of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

The Egyptian cease-fire only touched on the second and third points, without any clear promises.

The text of the proposal included only a vague proposition to open the border crossings and “facilitate” the passage of persons and goods – “once the security situation becomes stable on the ground.” It’s not clear a cessation of rocket fire alone would qualify as stabilizing the security situation.

The Egyptian proposal did nothing to address Hamas concerns about its reconciliation with Abbas’s Fatah party, ending a seven-year split. Just after the two factions agreed to a new government in early June, clashes broke out in Gaza when Abbas refused to pay overdue salaries for Hamas employees. And Abbas angered Hamas by insisting on continued security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank, even as Israeli security forces arrested about 400 Hamas members in connection after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens.

Some Israeli leaders, including several members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, also rejected the cease-fire efforts. They say much more force is needed to strip Hamas of its military capabilities and avert another barrage of rockets in the short-term.

Israel has so far destroyed about 20 percent of Hamas’s rocket capabilities, according to a briefing yesterday by Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner. Some its underground stockpiles and launchers would likely be impossible to destroy without a ground offensive.

Why Israel and Egypt have teamed up

Both Israel and Egypt have a strong interest in weakening Hamas, which they see as a terrorist offshoot of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. The cease-fire, reportedly the result of direct coordination, combines their considerable power to force Hamas even farther into the corner. 

Such an effort wouldn’t have been possible during the November 2012 conflict. Back then, Egypt was led by President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas was riding the tide of rising Islamist fortunes from Tunisia to Egypt to Turkey. The smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Israel became a virtual “highway,” as one Israeli official described it, enabling Hamas to bolster its supplies of weaponry and fuel its rocket factories.

But after Egypt’s military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Mr. Morsi a year ago, Mr. Sisi cracked down hard on the tunnels, destroying an estimated 90 percent of them and cutting off Hamas’s main artery for commercial goods, military supplies, and government revenue.

Now, Sisi is wielding his power as president to weaken Hamas. So far, Hamas is pushing back, but its ability to leverage the conflict for its own interests appears dubious at best.

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