For more than ten days, the Gaza strip has again been under attack by Israel, and although missiles are fired everyday by Palestinian factions into Israel, the causalities are massively (if not uniquely) on the Palestinian side. Twenty-four hours after the beginning of a sustained ground operation on Thursday, July 17, one may rightly fear that the number of victims, like the dozen Palestinian children killed in the past week, will increase to indecent proportions.
This renewed operation by Israel, initially hidden behind the media frenzy of the World Cup and now of the Malaysian plane shot down over Ukraine, is another round of collective punishment against Gazans — a gesture that has not gathered much international attention despite the gravity of the situation.
The point is not only to count the number of dead bodies under the rubble of Gaza, be they Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s fighters or civilians and children. There is another important casualty under the wreckage caused by the Israeli bombings after the failed ceasefire on Wednesday, July 16, and one to which commentators have paid little, or no attention: words.
And not just any words. These unusual casualties consisted of the declarations made on Wednesday, July 16 by leaders of Hamas when there were still hopes for a ceasefire, and which signaled an important political opening on the side of the Islamist faction. A careful look at them shows that Hamas has been forced to change its position since the ousting of President Morsi in Egypt and the consequent weakening of the Muslim Brotherhoods in the region. Statements published in Palestinian news outlets declared that Hamas was willing to sign a ceasefire with Israel providing that their conditions were met.
What were Hamas’s conditions and what do they tell us about the possibility of a path toward a negotiated exit from this new escalation?
Hamas’s requests started with very practical improvements, such as access by Palestinian farmers to the buffer zone along Gaza borders to cultivate their land; re-instatement of the six- nautical-miles limits for Palestinian fishers; the re-opening of the Gaza seaport and airport under UN supervision; and the reopening of the Rafah crossing under international control. But the request went well beyond practicalities and contained an important although overlooked novelty: Hamas called for substantial negotiation with Israel, as opposed to just a short-term ceasefire. Indeed, Hamas was willing to offer a 10-year truce, providing that Gazans were granted entry permits into Israel, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, and that Israel promised not to interfere in the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process.
This is in itself very significant for a movement that for years refused to engage in meaningful political negotiations with Israel. It shows that Hamas’s leaders have developed a vision that comes de facto close to some of the botched Oslo negotiations of the 1990s, with their endless and fruitless discussion between Arafat and Israel about the creation of a “safe corridor” between Gaza and the West Bank. Not only is Hamas now willing to discuss, but it is also announcing its willingness from a platform that was once that of Arafat and Fatah. It is striking (and surprisingly overlooked) that Hamas is now operating within a logic of ad interim negotiations — proposing a 10-year truce window — when many had sharply criticized Arafat for having accepted an ad hoc, temporary solution rather than aiming at a radical solution on the basis of international law and UN resolutions.
These proposals represent quite a break, considering that for years Hamas hid behind a sibylline and vague suggestion of coexistence, of a “100-year truce” between an Israeli state along the lines of the 1949 armistices and a Palestinian state made of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. For many Israelis and commentators this was the sign of a double-talk strategy on the part of Hamas: showing a willingness to live next to Israel (yet falling short of recognizing its existence) while simultaneously indulging a permanent temporariness (what happens after the 100 years?) that potentially incubated inimical sentiments towards Israel.
In a conflict where each word and formulation matters, it is quite surprising that these offers (or requests) have not generated more in-depth analyses. It might also be the case that for some, especially in the current right-wing Israeli government, it is better to hide these proposals under the rubble of Gaza, thereby assuring that a negotiated solution remains only a distant — a very distant — prospect.