Part VII – The Cairo Cease-Fire Negotiations 4 August – 26 August
The Ki-moon/Kerry/Qatar 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire agreement had broken down in less than 100 minutes after it started. It was supposed to lead to a longer term cease-fire to be negotiated in Cairo. The Israeli delegation in Cairo had been ordered back to Israel. On 4 August, the Hamas delegation threatened to leave as well if Israel did not return. Hamas threatened to rain rockets on Tel Aviv as Israeli air strikes shook the ground in Gaza City. 250-300 more Gazans would die before the war was over just over three weeks later.
The Israeli army, by the end, had located over 3,600 rocket and mortar impact sites in both Gaza, both from misfired rockets (almost 200) and ones aimed at IDF soldiers, and those targeting Israel that were either intercepted by Iron Dome (over 700 or about one-fifth of the total launched or about one-third headed towards Israeli soil), those that exploded in open fields, and those that actually struck built-up areas (almost 225). The latter is the most interesting figure, for though 20% of the rockets and mortars fired and about one-third targeting Israel were shot down by Iron Dome, two-thirds got through. Over 10 percent of them landed in populated urban areas. Only the excellent Israeli shelter system limited the civilian death toll from rockets to six civilians.
Other than the Hamas political and military elite, Gazans had no such protection. The rate of civilian deaths was a ratio of at least 200:1, a ratio which gave rise to charges of disproportionality in the international community, though the legal charge of disproportionality had very little to do with numbers killed on either side. Further, only when Israel directly targeted the prestigious high-rise apartment towers in Gaza, after first giving warning shots and getting the buildings evacuated, and, at the same time, directly targeted the homes of the Hamas ruling class killing militant leaders and sometimes their wives and children, did Hamas finally agree to accept the terms that had been offered to Hamas at the beginning of August by the Egyptians. According to international legal doctrine, civilian structures should not be targeted unless they had a military purpose. Did the destruction of prestigious high-rise apartment buildings have a military purpose? Along with targeting the Hamas military leadership, the destruction of the elite high-rise towers did seem to bring the war to an end.
The Gazans did not succeed in lifting the blockade. In fact, at the Rafah crossing into Egypt, an almost total blockade had been a key by-product of the war. Further, the crossings into Israel were never entirely closed even during the war. Almost 9,000 tons of medicines and medical supplies and almost 5,360 trucks with goods entered Gaza from Israel. So why did Hamas finally agree to a cease-fire? The hypothetical explanation entailed a combination of four factors:
- the targeting of Hamas’ leaders’ homes and principals;
- the destruction of the homes of the Gazan elite near the very end of the war;
- the anticipation of Hamas being left with no rockets to target Israel; and
- the belief by Hamas, and many supporters of the Palestinians around the world, that Hamas had won the media war in the international community and, with the relative significant diminution in civilian Palestinian deaths since 4 August, Hamas had little to gain and much to lose if the war continued; Hamas only faced further losses and no gains.
Many observers believed that the fourth was the most important factor. For this was a war of martyrdom and resistance. International sympathies were won through martyrdom and Arab sympathies through admiration of the tough resistance. These two were much more important to Hamas than a war of strategic advantage.
Azzam al-Ahmed, head of the negotiating team in Cairo, and Moussa Abu Marzouk, the delegation’s spokesperson, said as much when the talks were resumed. Each side rattled their fire power at one another – Israel threatened to unleash more forceful fire from the air while holding in reserve sending ground troops back into Gaza, and Hamas threatened that peace and quiet would not return to the Israeli border communities of Gaza. Israel said it would not return to the negotiating table until there was a total cessation of rockets targeting Israel. That never really happened except for relatively short periods.
Of course, the negotiations were also shaped by the negotiators. In addition to Azzam al-Ahmed, the head, the Palestinian delegation of eleven also included three other Fatah members, Qais Abd al-Karim of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who served as spokesman, four Hamas representatives, and two representatives of Islamic Jihad. The Israeli delegation consisted of: Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen, Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry political-diplomatic director, Major General Yoav, military commander in the West Bank, Pauly Mordechai, director of IDF planning, Major General. Nimrod Sheffer, and Yitzhak Molcho, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal lawyer.
Though one hesitates in such complex circumstances to be definitive, the ratio of diminishing gains and continuing and even increasing “quality” losses seemed to make the difference. Israeli Communication Minister, Gilad Erdan, a key member of the eight- member security cabinet, had repeatedly threatened throughout August that Israeli ground troops would return to Gaza, this time to topple Hamas, but it is not clear that the threat had any effect because Hamas could count heads in the Israel establishment. In any case, re-entry into Gaza after the 32 tunnels had been destroyed might mean the end of Hamas, but at great cost to lives of Israeli soldiers and even greater costs in the realm of world public opinion. Hamas would just have to survive long enough to escalate its victory in the media war before it fully conceded but still survived.
So Israel had nothing to gain by re-invading Gaza with ground troops and Hamas had a great deal to gain. Though Hamas insisted it would not stop fighting until the borders were opened and Gaza obtained an airport and a seaport, those goals proved totally out of reach. Although the head of the Palestinian delegation, Azzam al-Ahmed of Fatah, insisted that no long term cease-fire was possible unless these conditions were met, a position reiterated by Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, it was just as clear that these aims were as unrealistic as the threats of Israel to re-invade Gaza and topple Hamas unless Hamas agreed to disarm. If Hamas agreed to that, their doctrine of martyrdom and resistance, which was their whole raison d’être, would be for naught.
What was the deal on offer at the beginning of August? First, the Palestinian Authority personnel would man the Rafah crossing as insisted upon by Egypt. The unity deal between Hamas and the PA for governance would be recognized by Israel. That unity government would enter negotiations with Israel for opening the borders and for an airport and seaport in Gaza, but the prospect of that happening in the near future without Hamas capitulating and disarming was very remote. Israel had the precedent of Hezbollah agreeing to disarm if and when Israel withdrew from Lebanon. The latter took place but not the former. Israel would require iron-clad terms of inspection and monitoring.
Israelis were realistic. They recognized that Israel had not “won” the war in Gaza no matter what gains Israel had made, a widespread view confirmed in opinion polls. 51 percent of Israelis even acknowledged the war was a tie and neither side had won. 56 percent believed that even dealing Hamas a serious military blow by destroying its tunnels and reducing its store of rockets by one-third was only partially achieved. When Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory, support that had remained relatively high slid downward from 82 percent to 77 percent. In other words, the 51 Day 2014 Gaza War was merely another in a long series of wars fighting terrorism. Israelis overwhelmingly supported negotiating a long-term cease-fire in spite of the harassment of Netanyahu from the political right and within his own party.
Meanwhile, Gaza was in collective mourning during the first 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire that began at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday 5 August. But this did nothing to diminish Hamas threats. Hamas spokesmen Ismail Radwan and Moussa Abu Marzouk insisted that unless the position of the “resistance” was met, there would be no extension of the cease-fire, that Hamas rocket fire would resume and Hamas would withdraw its negotiating team from Cairo. U.S. envoy Frank Lowenstein arrived in Cairo to bolster the Egyptians and recover from America’s deviant shift to Qatar. US Secretary of State John Kerry even insisted that peace could only come when Hamas gave up its arsenal of rockets. Israel made it clear that the ground war would not be re-started when it sent 30,000 reservists home.
On the international scene, even though Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that Israel had “overstepped the mark” and wanted Britain to suspend its arms export licenses to Israel,, Sayeeda Warsi resigned as Foreign Office minister from UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet in protest against Cameron’s failure to take a strong stand against Israel’s “war crimes”. Warsi termed Cameron’s stance as “morally indefensible” for Cameron refused to support urging Israel to lift the Gaza blockade.
In 2012, a 21 November 2012 cease-fire agreement ended 8 days of sustained Gazan rocket fire at Israel and a significant display of Israeli air power against Gaza. The agreement provided that all Palestinian factions would cease sending rockets at Israel. That part of the agreement had to be included in the 2014 agreement to end the hostilities. Israel, in turn, guaranteed it would end all land, sea and air attacks against Palestinians in Gaza, including against individuals targeted with drones. That too had to be part of the 2014 agreement. However, since the promise of ending the blockade of Gaza depended on the cessation of rockets, Israel’s opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods also never took place in 2013 because the smuggling of weapons through the tunnels had continued.
Israel was adamant that it would not simply resurrect the 2012 agreement because it wanted much better assurances on the ground that Hamas would not be re-armed. In 2014, Egypt’s total closing of the Rafah crossing, its destruction of the tunnels into Egypt, and its plan to build a separation barrier on Egyptian soil now appeared to make the prospect of inhibiting Hamas re-arming more realistic. Hamas, in turn, had fired only two mortar shells into Israel following the November 2012 cease-fire agreement and did not trust Israel to keep its side of the agreement given Israel’s actions in the aftermath of the 2012 Operation. After the 2012 cease-fire agreement, Israel continued to target selective Gazans in spite of the agreement, refused to loosen the blockade even for Gazan fishers, and, most significantly of all as Netanyahu was tied down with elections and the formation of a coalition cabinet, talks on lightening the blockade never took place. After so much human sacrifice and property damage in Gaza, Hamas was unwilling to return to the status quo ante without real signs that the prospect of lightening the load of the blockade would progress. After all, at the beginning of 2013, actions went in the opposite direction as exports continued to be blocked, imports declined and even fewer Gazans were given permission to transit Israel for travel to the West Bank.
The issue between 2012 and 2014 was not Hamas complying with the cease-fire but Hamas’ determined effort using the smuggling tunnels to re-arm and, as seen retrospectively, to build the warren of tunnels for future attacks against Israel. The 2014 51 day war was a direct result of Hamas becoming totally trapped by the Sisi coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Hamas’ days were numbered and it was determined to fight its way back into a leadership roll. This it succeeded in doing, but without the continuous flow of armaments, its position of power would continue to decline. The issue for Hamas was how much it could salvage from its deteriorating position. Sisi seemed even more determined to keep Hamas on a tight leash than Israel.
Even before the war, Hamas had capitulated politically. In the unity government to which it had agreed, there was not one Hamas supporter in the cabinet. Fatah security forces were scheduled to return to Gaza and were given responsibility for guarding the crossings. Though Hamas would not endorse a non-violent program and recognition of Israel, it agreed not to oppose the Palestinian Authority position. The question now was whether and to what extent it would capitulate militarily. Because of Sisi, Hamas lacked Hezbollah’s options. In reality, the negotiations in Cairo were as much about Hamas divisions with Fatah, to which Hamas was now yoked, as it was about its relationship with Israel. The issue for both Hamas and Israel was how strong the Palestinian Authority would be in 2014 post-war Gaza. Israel in concert behind the scenes with Abbas had already demonstrated that together they could hold the lid on West Banks zealots.
So, contrary to Israeli public opinion, Israel through the war consolidated its defeat of Hamas. The issue for Israel was the degree to which subsequent events could reinforce that defeat. For Hamas, which had been psychologically and politically reborn, the issue was transferring its new-found glory into substantive military and political gains on the ground. Its prospects looked even bleaker than when Operation Protective Edge was launched in spite of Hamas’ outstanding success in killing over 60 IDF soldiers (compared to only 13 dead in Operation Cast Lead where four soldiers had been killed by friendly fire), keeping Israeli penetration of Gaza very much to the perimeter, using its tunnels to actually attack Israeli army positions on Israeli soil and even launch attacks from the sea. However, under the circumstances, these – for Hamas – glorious achievements were unlikely to be repeated and Israel wanted guarantees that they would not be repeated.
On 6 August when Gaza farmers and residents began to return to the border areas, Hamas received another political relations blow when the head of the terror cell on the West Bank that killed the three Yeshiva students, who had been captured by the Israelis, Hussam Kawasme told the Israeli secret service that his team had been funded by Hamas. Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu Aysha, his colleagues in the killing, were aided in their escape by a Hamas network in the West Bank.
By 12 August the terms of a longer cease-fire agreement had been worked out. Hamas dropped its demands for the immediate creation of a seaport and re-establishment of the airport. Israel dropped its demand that Hamas be totally disarmed but insisted that the Palestinian Authority take full control over the crossings and over the political administration in Gaza. Israel agreed to expand the limits of the Gaza fishery from three to twelve miles subject to Israeli security concerns. Egypt agreed to re-open the Rafah crossing subject to the Palestinian Authority taking over on the Gaza side and that position to be backed up by 1,000 PA armed militia men on the ground. With this in place, Israel agreed to significantly expand the range of goods and services allowed into Gaza with the number of trucks crossing doubled to 600 and, without granting Hamas’ demand for absolutely free movement of people between Gaza and the West Bank, Israel agreed to issue many more permits to Gazans not only for transit to the West Bank but also to work in Israel. Israel thus far had not agreed to the release of the last 51 prisoners that were provided for in the Kerry peace talks. Nor was any agreement provided for the transfer of the bodies of Israeli soldiers to Israel.
The further two-week delay was a result of the factions on the Palestinian side sorting out their own divisions. On 15 August, Egypt put before the parties the terms of the cease-fire. On 19 August, Izzat al-Rishq insisted that delays in signing the agreement wee the result of Israel continuing to up the ante in the talks and warned that it would not agree to another cease-fire extension. Hamas’ resistance to signing was propelled because it had not won any firm commitments on long term relief for Gaza and getting the blockade lifted. The peace talks did break down once again on Tuesday 19 August. 140 rockets and mortars were fired against Israel in the next 24 hours and 160 more in the following twenty-four hours. 22 Palestinians were killed by Israeli retaliatory fire on the first day and 38 more on the second day according to Gazan Ministry of Health figures. Hamas threatened to shut down Ben Gurion airport once again.
Agreement was forthcoming when Israel finally forced Hamas’ hand and destroyed the Gaza City towers, the prestigious 11-storey Al Zafar Tower and the Italian tower, and earlier fired missiles that killed three leaders of the military wing of Hamas, Mohammed Abu Shamalah, Raed al-Attar, and Mohammed Barhoum, in pre-dawn airstrikes, and targeted the military chief himself, Mohammed Deif, but, according to Hamas, killing only his wife, Widad, his three-year old daughter, Sara, and his eight-month old son, Ali. Three others were killed in the attack. Further vengeance and retribution were expected. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, dubbed the killing of the top commanders “a big Israeli crime” and vowed that, “Israel will pay the price.” The attack would not break Hamas’ will, he said.
Vengeance was delivered, not primarily at Israel, although a four-year-old Israeli child was killed in a rocket barrage from Gaza, but on scores of alleged collaborators who were rounded up and summarily executed. Israel would have retaliated with overwhelming force if the wife and children of Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, head of the IDF, had been killed by a Hamas rocket. However, these last very targeted actions based on detailed intelligence seem to have broken the will of Hamas to hold out any longer in a way that the ground invasion never did with its high toll in Israeli military casualties. The Palestinian death toll in Gaza had now reached 2,100. As hard as it is to swallow for a peacenik, force seemed to have worked, at least a specific use of force at just the right time, but it is not too difficult to imagine diplomacy having worked even better if only both sides had been committed to a peaceful resolution.
But perhaps not!