After six days of punishing Israeli air strikes and Palestinian counterattacks with rockets, tough negotiations have opened up in Cairo, that hope to achieve much more than an immediate ceasefire.
Two heavyweights — Hamas’ leaders in exile Khaled Meshal and Moussa Abu Marzouk — have been joined by top guns of other Palestinian factions, including Ramadan Shalah of the Islamic Jihad and Nabil Shaath of Fatah, for talks with Egyptian mediators.
On a parallel track, the Egyptians are engaging two Israeli officials to work out a possible deal that could bring durable calm to Gaza, the impoverished coastal strip with a population of 1.6 million. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — both wired up to speak to Barack Obama, U.S. President — are there to give political shape to the talks, which are bound to encounter several pitfalls, because of the grossly divergent positions of the two sides so far.
In their opening gambit, the Israelis have asked for a 15-year lull in fighting, and a commitment by Palestinians to stop weapon smuggling into Gaza. All Palestinian factions must also stop rocket attacks, and Israeli soldiers on the Gaza border must not be targeted. In response to Israel’s maximalist demands, the Palestinians have demanded the lifting of the siege on Gaza, imposed on the coastal strip by Israel in 2007.
Mr. Shaath, former Palestinian Foreign Minister, was quoted by the Ma’an Palestinian news agency as saying the factions have also called for an end to Israeli incursions into Gaza, a stoppage to assassinations of leaders and a permanent freeze in attacks on fishermen off the coast.
He said Hamas had refused to accept the initial Israeli demand for a handover of weapons, but had agreed not to target civilians after the enforcement of a ceasefire.
The two parties are also arguing over who should stop attacks first; with the Hamas maintaining that Israel should initiate the truce because it had triggered the fighting by assassinating on Wednesday, Ahmad al-Jabari — a top Hamas commander.
Ahead of the talks, the Israelis seemed to be holding a gun on the Palestinians’ head by threatening to invade Gaza with ground troops.
“The army is prepared to significantly expand the operation,” asserted Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister, at the start of a Cabinet meeting on Sunday. But it was unlikely that the Israeli bluster would impress the Palestinians, despite the gross asymmetry in military capabilities of the two sides.
Analysts say the Palestinians are counting on the heavy price that Israelis would have to pay, which could include sacrificing their ties with Egypt, should they choose to invade Gaza. An incursion would impose enormous pressure on the Egyptian leadership to scrap the 1979 peace treaty that anchors Egyptian-Israeli ties, in tune with the raucously emotive pro-Palestinian popular sentiment in the country.
In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Abu Marzouk, the senior Hamas leader, said moderate Islamist politicians in the region, including the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, would have to line up with the Gaza militants, should the Israelis decide to invade.
“The position of all Islamists in the region will be that of Hamas,” observed Mr. Abu Marzouk.
Despite supporting Israel in its air campaign, the West is also discouraging Israel from launching a ground offensive. William Hague, British Foreign Secretary, said on television on Sunday he, along with Prime Minister David Cameron had “stressed to our Israeli counterparts that a ground invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy that they have in this situation”.
These remarks come at a time when Israel has been hit by a public relations disaster, after a rogue Sunday air raid on Gaza killed nine members — all women and children — of the al-Dalou family.
Pictures of the tragedy from the site showed people pulling out bodies of dead children from the rubble. The sharply escalating death spiral in Gaza has now touched the 70 mark, out of which 20 are children.