Contradictory reports from Cairo about the progress of the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas are creating no little confusion, as well as suspicion, among residents of Gaza. The humanitarian situation is getting worse and there’s no sign of a solution. More than 400,000 Palestinians are homeless or refugees and even if a permanent ceasefire agreement were reached today or tomorrow (which is unlikely), no remedy to their problems is at hand.
They are likely to remain without homes for weeks and months after any agreement, simply because building homes takes time and materials. And even if Israel were to allow such supplies into Gaza, under some kind of supervision to prevent their misuse by Hamas, the quantities required are immense. Israel demands that a special oversight process ensure that building materials are not used instead to build tunnels and bunkers, but it is hard to imagine a viable mechanism that could ensure each kilo of cement brought into Gaza is used solely to rebuild or reconstruct the tens of thousands of houses smashed or damaged in the course of the war.
Another problem concerns the new school year. The summer vacation is coming to an end, and most schools in Gaza have become shelters for refugees. As things stand, hundreds of thousands of schoolkids in Gaza have nowhere to study.
If there is no deal by Wednesday night and the conflict resumes, the ramifications will be immense. One might think that many Gazans want the war over right away, but for the large sector of the Gaza populace that has already lost everything — with relatives killed or homes destroyed — a partial agreement now is worse than continued fighting. These Gazans, who will be living in tents or schools for the foreseeable future, are pressing Hamas not to capitulate and to continue insisting upon the lifting of the blockade. Hence Hamas’s determination to attain an immediate, genuine achievement — not to make do with a vague easing of access at the crossings, but to hold out for Israeli agreement to the establishment of a seaport, the release of prisoners and/or the immediate re-opening of the Rafah border crossing to Egypt.
Reports over the last few hours in Israeli and Palestinian media about a breakthrough or an emerging draft agreement seem unduly optimistic. The Israeli proposals mentioned in these reports are not new; indeed they were around even before the war started. An agreement by Egypt, the PA, and Israel regarding the reopening of Rafah in the presence of PA forces was reached by the sides weeks ago.
The problems stem from Hamas’s more far-reaching demands. For Hamas, a deal to stop the war in return for an increase in the number of trucks bringing supplies through Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing, or an increase in the number of traders and business people allowed to cross in and out of Israel at Erez — “concessions” reportedly agreed to by the Israeli negotiators — would represent a humiliating surrender. (Israeli agreement to the transfer of salaries to Hamas clerks does not constitute a breakthrough either, because it is the PA that has prevented such payments, not the Israeli government.)
One Israeli diplomatic source said on Tuesday morning that, in fact, there had been no progress at the talks. Senior Hamas officials stress that they have not withdrawn their demands for a seaport or for prisoner releases. And time is ticking away.
Egypt is currently primarily focused on two simultaneous efforts. The first: to extend the ceasefire by another 72 hours, which Hamas currently opposes. The second: to persuade Hamas to abandon its demand for a seaport in return for the opening of Rafah. But Hamas mistrusts the Egyptians, and reopening Rafah would not happen right away. It would require weeks of preparation, with plenty of opportunity for Egyptian delaying tactics.
And so once again, Hamas is in a difficult situation. It knows that part of the Gaza public wants quiet, while another part, no less important, is urging it not to surrender. The organization has set out exaggerated demands, maybe even impossible ones, which are unlikely to be met in the short or the long term, in which case it knows it will be portrayed as the big loser of this war.
An assessment of whether Hamas has won or lost will only really be possible if and when an agreement is reached, depending on the final terms. But last week the spokesman of the Hamas military wing, Abu Obeida, declared that there would be no ceasefire without a port. To agree to anything less, therefore, from Hamas’s own point of view, would be a defeat.