Analysis |

Israel-Gaza Fighting: From Neighborhood Feud to Global Conflict

Iran has found a foothold in the Gaza crisis, and thanks to Islamic Jihad it may yet play an important part in ending the crisis.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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An IDF tank on Gaza border.
An IDF tank on Gaza border. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ travels to Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Bahrain, reports of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Cairo and the phone calls between Iran and Islamic Jihad, draw a kind of “geological map” of the cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

This map is comprised of several layers. The first is the need to reach an agreement between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who don’t see eye-to-eye regarding Egypt’s status as a mediator. Hamas, of course, rejects the Egyptian mediation efforts and Cairo’s cease-fire offer, claiming it does not fulfill the “necessary minimum” demanded by the movement.

Egypt’s offer includes no guarantees of opening the border crossings, no pledge to address the prisoners issue and the transfer of funds to pay the salaries of some 45,000 Gazan government officials (who have been paid by Hamas until now), plus there is no mention of the Hamas prisoners rearrested last month, after having been released in the Gilad Shalit deal. Hamas is also demanding that Gaza’s fishermen be allowed to fish up to 12 kilometers from the Strip’s shores.

Islamic Jihad is willing, in principle, to accept both Cairo’s offer and Egypt as a mediator, for a number of reasons. First, Islamic Jihad wishes to take advantage of its special status in Egypt; as opposed to Hamas, it is not perceived as an “enemy of the people” (i.e., those belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood). Moreover, Egypt has in the past reconciled with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad – which is not necessarily connected to the Palestinian movement, and is not attributed with political aspirations of seizing power like Hamas. It is possible that Islamic Jihad – which is backed by Iran – supports the Egyptian offer because Tehran wishes to score points with President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. This credit could come in handy later on, in the process of mending ties between Egypt and Iran. Furthermore, Iran is settling a score with Hamas for disengaging from the Syrian front and criticizing the Syrian regime for the mass killing of citizens.

This is where the circle of the Gaza organizations overlaps with the outer interests of several countries. Qatar and Turkey have joined hands not only in drafting a cease-fire, but mainly with the aim of yanking the monopoly over the crisis’ resolution from Egypt’s hands. Their offer is more detailed, and includes the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, a timetable for implementing understandings and, most importantly, the United States, not Egypt will guarantee the implementation of the agreement by monitoring Israel’s compliance.

Egypt rejects this offer mainly because it pushes Cairo to the sidelines, even though it is Cairo that possesses the main leverage tool over Gaza. According to Egyptian sources, Israel promised Egypt it would not agree to any offer that does not define Egypt as the sole player responsible for its implementation. In other words, the agreement would be whatever is accepted by Egypt and Israel – and only by them.

Yet Egyptian leverage over the Gaza Strip – control of the Rafah border crossing – may turn out to be a double-edged sword, especially if the military operation drags on and Egyptian public opinion changes course and demands the opening of the crossing. For this reason – as well as the deep formal and public hostility between Egypt and Hamas, which keeps the sides from reaching a compromise – it is Islamic Jihad that may find itself in the position of a “mediator between mediators.”

The movement’s leaders stress that “unity” with Hamas is sound, and that any decision will be made through cooperation. But the bosses in Tehran – who refuse to even negotiate with Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal – may pressure Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shalah into convincing Hamas it is better off accepting a flexible Egyptian offer. Thus, Iran gains a foothold in the Gaza crisis, and thanks to Islamic Jihad may yet play an important part in ending the crisis.

On the outer circle we find Saudi Arabia, several Gulf states, the United States, France and Germany, who support Egypt’s role as crisis solver. Of these nations, the United States is designated the most central part – guaranteeing Israel’s implementation of the cease-fire. For a moment, it looked as if Washington was once again holding the map upside down, as it swiftly got behind the Qatar-Turkey initiative. One reason for this was that Sissi wasted no time in announcing his offer ahead of Kerry’s visit, thus making U.S. involvement superfluous.

Yet it seems Washington came to its senses, realizing that no Qatari-Turkish offer would be accepted by Egypt and Israel, even if it promised to destroy Hamas. And so, the United States is returning to the Egyptian arena. Kerry, who only a month ago arrived on his first visit in Cairo to assure Sissi that the United States sees him as a legitimate leader, was supposed to arrive in Cairo Saturday, shortly after the departure of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

The conclusion from this international and inter-Arab involvement in the Gaza conflict is that the prospects of a resolution to the conflict lie not only in the number of Palestinian and Israeli dead or the amount of rockets and tunnels, but depend to a large extent on striking the right balance between the different power struggles and prestige wars waged by all sides, until the last drop of Palestinian blood.

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