Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Hamas vs Israel: Truce? No truce. Here’s why

Amir Farshad Ebrahimi (Flickr) (CC-BY-2.0)

Amir Farshad Ebrahimi (Flickr) (CC-BY-2.0)

The press is reporting that Israel accepted the terms of an Egyptian offered ceasefire on Tuesday morning, and that Hamas rejected it. The terms of the truce required rocket fire to cease at 9 am Israeli time; Hamas launched several dozen rockets over the course of the morning, though fewer than in recent days. Israel did not retaliate for much of the day, clearly in the hope that Hamas would come to its senses and recognize that its actions were doing more to harm the Palestinian people than Israel. The truce terms were just that — truce — with no concessions by either side, though it required border crossing openings into Egypt and other humanitarians gestures. (Note, the borders have only been closed to human traffic and general trade; food and other necessities have continued to flow into Gaza from Israel.) It also contemplated both sides meeting to hammer out an agreement within short order.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, has sent signals that the group is ready for a cease-fire, though other terrorist groups — Palestinian Islamic Jihad in particular — have not concurred. But it’s not going to be easy for Hamas to accept any ceasefire without a perception of concessions from Israel… and if we properly understand this entire Hamas war as more of a political than a military effort, there are few scenarios in which Hamas comes out looking better than it did before the conflict. Many have been killed, hundreds wounded, and Gaza has been hit hard by Israel.

Haniyeh complained in a speech Monday that Gaza is under siege, salaries have gone unpaid, and many Hamas operatives were arrested in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens… a plaint that may sound a tad rich even to Palestinians fed a steady diet of Hamas propaganda. After all, attacks on Israel have only exacerbated the conditions about which Haniyeh complained. Nor has the war on Israel ameliorated Hamas’ internal standing in any real terms. Indeed, the kidnapping of the Israeli teens came on the heels of a Hamas-Fatah unity government announcement that was — incredibly — accepted in Washington. There are few circumstances under which it is imaginable that Hamas can again be accepted as a partner, even by the unusually accepting Obama administration.

Then there’s the question of the US role. John Kerry, fresh from “good” (sigh) nuclear talks with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna, canceled a notional trip to Egypt to lend his good offices to the truce effort. Now, it’s not easy to suppress a snort of derision here: John Kerry, peacemaker? His track record on brokering peace talks is heavy on Kerry and light on, you know, peace. But the more notable point is that the US has little to offer by way of good offices because the Obama administration isn’t trusted by anyone — neither the Israelis, the Palestinians or the Egyptians. It’s a testament to just how far US prestige has fallen since Obama’s famous “I’m not George Bush” speech in Cairo at the outset of his presidency, that the US hardly has the weight to leverage the Palestinians, let alone more important regional players.

Then there’s Egypt, which is having its own troubles with credibility with Sunni terrorist groups. Setting aside the myriad problems of Egypt’s proto-dictatorship, it is nonetheless amazing to see the depth of the chasm between secular Sunnis and their extremist coreligionists. Hamas, with its own roots in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, looks to the hundreds of Islamists now swelling Egyptian prisons and wonders why it should trust the honest broker. But it’s not clear who else in the region can play the role; other than Jordan, no one else formally recognizes Israel. The Israelis don’t trust the Europeans (“Hamas? Terrorist? Nah.” — the EU), no one trusts the Americans, and that leaves the parties with few options.

Hey, Mr. Obama, how’s that whole “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” working for you?

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