Behind the Scenes of the Short-lived Gaza Cease-fire

Kerry’s stubbornness, Israel’s conditions, Qatari pressure and Hamas’ giving in.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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An Israeli woman surveys the damage after a rocket fired by Gaza militants landed in Kiryat Gat. July 31, 2014
An Israeli woman surveys the damage after a rocket fired by Gaza militants landed in Kiryat Gat. July 31, 2014Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

As midnight approached on Thursday, the security cabinet ministers received a phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office. Over the next hour, they were told, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would declare the acceptance of a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire, and the immediate opening of comprehensive negotiations in Cairo with Egyptian mediation between Israel and representatives of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as other Palestinian factions, primarily Hamas.

As opposed to other times during the current war in Gaza, this times the ministers weren’t surprised. The idea of a one or two day cease-fire came up during a cabinet meeting that took place 24 hours prior on Wednesday. “It was clear to the ministers that things were going in that direction,” said a senior Israeli official who was present at the meeting.

After the meeting, the ministers authorized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to make the decision regarding the humanitarian cease-fire, including the terms and conditions that Israel would set. The Prime Minister’s Office kept these developments very quiet. During the media briefing after the cabinet meeting, the impression was given that the operation was continuing without changes, and that a cease-fire wasn’t on the horizon.

Israeli and American officials said that the diplomatic contacts that led to the cabinet meeting began on Monday night, during a phone call between Kerry and Netanyahu. Kerry offered to renew contacts with the Egyptians and the Qataris in order to achieve an unlimited humanitarian cease-fire while beginning negotiations on a long-term deal.

Kerry, still recovering from the rejection of his cease-fire draft by the security cabinet a few days ago, has tried to fend off harsh criticism, and spoke about his phone call with Netanyahu during a press conference in Washington on Tuesday. He claimed that it was the Israel Prime Minister that asked him to work toward a cease-fire. The Prime Minister’s office denied Kerry’s claims, rightly so, and said that it was he who initiated the effort.

A senior Israeli official stated that during the same phone call, Netanyahu listed Israel’s conditions for a cease-fire to Kerry. Netanyahu stated that IDF forces would remain in the field and continue their operation on the tunnels, and demanded that the cease-fire must last for longer than a period of 24 hours, unlike the previous cease-fire periods during the fighting in Gaza.

A senior American official stated that Kerry had also been in talks with Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, to learn Hamas’ conditions. The organization opposed the continued presence of IDF soldiers and continued operations against the tunnels, and also demanded that any humanitarian cease-fire would not remain in place for more than 24 hours.

On Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Kerry and his team, along with UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry tried to come up with a wording that would bridge the gap between the two sides. Serry, who has played an integral role in the effort, spoke with Hamas leadership in Gaza while the Qataris spoke with the head of Khaled Meshal’s staff in Doha.

The American official stated that the solution they found was to declare a 72 hour cease-fire. On the one hand, the window is large enough to start negotiations, and on the other, it’s not long enough to make Hamas feel as if it is being trapped into a corner. The official stated that both Israel and Hamas accepted the proposal.

The issue that needed to be solved was the continued IDF operation against the tunnels. The Americans stated that because the cease-fire is humanitarian in nature, it means that both sides’ forces can remain in place, and withdrawal is not necessary, though Hamas was still not convinced.

The American official stated that at that point on Tuesday, Kerry’s talks with the Qatari foreign minister managed to make headway. The Qataris, believing that crunch time was approaching, stopped defending Hamas and began putting real, and heavy pressure on Meshal to accept the proposal.

The pressure on Meshal saw results. “Finally, after three weeks, we felt that the Qataris were really pressing,” said the official. “This pressure along with the blows that they’ve suffered during the fighting prompted them to make concessions and agree to the proposal.”

The sentiment among the Americans is that the Israeli side, too, felt an increasing need to reach a cease-fire, the reason for this being the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In talks with Netanyahu, the Americans understood that Israel was very troubled by the imminent collapse of civil infrastructure in Gaza, primarily water, sewage and electricity. The mounting criticism from the White House and the international community over the death of Palestinian civilians also prompted Israel to work toward a cease-fire agreement.

The Americans thought that a humanitarian cease-fire could be declared by Wednesday. Despite the fact that the Israeli cabinet authorized Netanyahu and Ya’alon to make the decision, a few other issues remained unsolved and efforts continued into Thursday.

The backlash Kerry received over the cease-fire draft he presented to Israel last Friday influenced the way in which the current cease-fire efforts were conducted. A senior American official said that during the discreet diplomatic talks, the Americans presented as simple a draft as they could, in order to prevent running into complex issues that could cause misunderstandings.

Kerry and Serry continued working to close the deal. Serry spoke with Hamas while Kerry spoke to Israel, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. Kerry, who just arrived in India, took a break after every meeting he had there in order to focus his efforts on the Gaza crisis. Sometimes he even left the room during meetings in order to make phone calls. On Thursday alone, Kerry spoke with Netanyahu for about two to three hours, over five or six phone calls.

After the progress made on Thursday morning, it became clear that Hamas would accept Israel’s conditions for a ceasefire, the feeling was that the deal was done.

UN envoy Serry was ready on Thursday afternoon to declare a humanitarian cease-fire in hopes of starting it on midnight. But this time as well, there were loose ends to tie up. The same thing happened at 7:00 P.M. as preparations were made to declare the ceasefire and it was postponed yet again.

At 9:00 P.M., the Qatari Al Jazeera station reported on the outline being formulated for the 72 hour cease-fire. Kerry and his team, along with Serry, as well as Netanyahu and his advisors thought that the report would kill the deal before it got off the ground, although aside from a few quotes of the report, the Israeli nor the international media did not consider it to be very important or credible. The White House and the State Department also did drop any hints about the efforts during their daily press briefings.

At 10:00 P.M., final permission was given by Kerry, Serry and Netanyahu’s office to announce the cease-fire deal, and the two sides began wording their announcements. The decision was made to make two announcements, one by Kerry and the other by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in New York. A half hour past midnight, Israeli citizens were surprised to hear Kerry and Ban state that within a few hours, a cease-fire would begin.

The Prime Minister’s Office, however, kept things quiet. Slightly after 6:00 A.M., it published this rather laconic message: “in accordance with the security cabinet, the prime minister and the defense minister, Israel has accepted the U.S. and UN proposal for a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire beginning at 8:00 A.M. on Friday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announces a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire beginning Friday between Israel and Hamas, in New Delhi, India, Aug. 1, 2014.Credit: AP

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