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Opinion: Gaza’s Hostages | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Palestinian woman holds her daughter as she waits to receive food supplies from a United Nations food distribution center in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip August 19, 2014. (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

The Gaza truce negotiations that aim to end the current and third war since Hamas took over the enclave in 2007, differ from previous ones in terms of their nature, interests and the conflicting objectives of all the visible and invisible players involved. One characteristic is the different stance being taken by the US, which, unlike previously, has preferred to take a back seat and wait for the outcome of the secret negotiations. Since US Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy failed to achieve a breakthrough, Washington has contented itself with issuing statements and placing limited pressure on the parties in order to ensure that the conflict does not spiral out of control. Kerry imagined he could achieve a breakthrough in the middle of the chaos ravaging the region from Iraq and Syria to Libya, not to mention the other regional hotspots that do not find their way into the headlines.

It seems that the interests of both parties involved in the current Gaza war are being served by this conflict. On the one hand, Israel is not comfortable with a Palestinian unity government and the accumulation of weapons and rockets in Gaza. On the other hand, Hamas is facing a domestic crisis represented by a growing sense of unrest on the part of the people of Gaza, which is threatening to gradually collapse its Islamist rule. Moreover, after the closure of tunnels by the Egyptian government, the Islamist movement felt the financial pinch as smuggling activities shrank. Not to mention the fact that former allies turned into enemies; the Syrian regime expelled the Hamas leadership—including Khaled Mishal himself—from Damascus, while Iran became occupied with other regional wars and began to show a tendency towards compromise on other regional dossiers, with the exception of its nuclear negotiations.

Throughout history, Egypt has enjoyed control and influence over its bordering enclave, particularly between 1948 and 1967, when Gaza was akin to a free zone. Now, Egyptian interests can best be served by achieving calm in the Gaza Strip in order to allow Cairo to focus on its domestic challenges. Cairo has taken advantage of the current talks in order to link the resolution of the current crisis to the entire Palestinian cause. At the same time, it is hoping to give the Palestinian Authority (PA) the chance to retain control over the enclave, particularly its border crossings, and end the state of Palestinian division.

Intersecting with this are other regional sides that, in one way or another, oppose the Egyptian role in Gaza for reasons unrelated to the Palestinian cause. These regional parties are seeking to make up for the loss of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and secure spheres of influence in the region. At the same time, they are also prepared to ignite the situation in the region if this serves their interests. This may explain the stance of Hamas’s exiled leadership, which hardens its position whenever any signs of agreement emerge. This is part of the dilemma of the Palestinian leadership who, due to their exile that started in 1960s, have often found themselves obliged to take their host country’s interests into account. This is something that is not always in the best interests of the Palestinian cause.

Hamas is seeking to inherit the mantle of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and therefore the PA. However the Islamist group’s main problem is its link with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its inability to distance itself from the stance of the parent organization. Its affiliation with the Brotherhood places it at the heart of a regional conflict that the Palestinians ultimately have no interest in. Hamas’s approval of a unity government with the PA came about as a result of the worsening situation inside Gaza. After Egypt shut down the tunnels over security concerns, the Islamist movement felt the need to be part of a legitimate framework that allowed it to receive funds and pay salaries. However, this reconciliation agreement was not given sufficient time to show whether it could hold or not. In practice, the PA has not entered Gaza yet, and Fatah elements in the enclave have continued to be placed under home arrest even during the war, according to an Associated Press report published on Monday.

In the middle of these complications, one issue continues to place pressure on all sides involved, including Hamas—that of the 1.8 million civilians in Gaza who are confined to a limited territory and forced to live in a situation akin to that of prisoners in an open jail. They cannot go about their daily lives in a normal manner, nor can they dream of a better future for themselves. Palestinians cannot engage in commercial trade with the rest of the world or set up their own businesses, without knowing that this could all be destroyed by a random shell in response to a missile fired by some faction at a target in Israel that is completely unrelated to the Palestinian cause.

This problem has reached the point where we now need a real solution on the ground. We can no longer put up with further delays in peace talks aimed at the establishment of the Palestinian state. The demands put forward by the Palestinian delegation regarding the opening of an airport and a seaport in Gaza, as well as regulating trade and travel across border crossings, are urgent ones, and necessary for solving the civilian crisis. This is worth it, even if the talks only lead to the establishment of a semi-independent entity or a city port. Similar semi-independent entities, including Monaco and Hong Kong, have been able to find a way to economically sustain themselves.

The Gaza reconstruction conference will likely act as a carrot to bring about an end to the current situation and achieve a long-term truce. It will also be the passageway to finding an enduring solution to the crisis in the enclave. Investments and funds will not be funneled to the enclave while armed factions and militias are in control. The administration of the enclave will most likely be overseen by the international community as the PA returns to it in one way or another. Will the warring sides accept this settlement and agree to release the 1.8 million hostages in Gaza? There is no clear indication of this, so far.