Saturday’s humanitarian cease-fire, which began as a 12-hour agreement with a short extension option, afforded both Israel and the Gaza Strip a vital time-out. Not only to relax a little from the rockets and shells, to collect the bodies and to deal with necessities; it also reminded both sides of just how important it is to find a way to extend it and make it permanent.
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Israel has lost more than 40 soldiers and officers, and three civilians, while the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 1,000, the majority of them innocent civilians. The destruction in the Strip is enormous, and in both Israel and Gaza a feeling of insecurity has become a way of life. In addition, over the past few days the war in Gaza has spread to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and it threatens to ignite a wider uprising.
Israel does not want to reoccupy the Gaza Strip or to remain there long-term. Its aims, at least according to what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said publicly, are still limited: to destroy the tunnels that lead into Israel and to stop the rocket fire. The former is apparently nearing completion. The latter is far from it and presumably cannot be achieved in the current military operation.
Given these circumstances, the only possible conclusion is that this war must move from the theater of operations to the negotiating table, and those who sought the vaunted “victory picture” will have to settle for the restoration of long-term calm and the destruction of the so-called terror tunnels. In the absence of an all-encompassing negotiating process that would produce a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, that is a significant accomplishment.
The diplomatic efforts being orchestrated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are indeed aimed at achieving the possible under the circumstances. Not a decisive political victory of one side, but rather a defined, agreed-upon and effective cease-fire. In order to reach it, Israel will have to soften its stance on its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Such a move would not be a concession to Hamas, but rather a reconnection of the oxygen tube that will make it possible for the territory’s 1.8 million inhabitants to breathe freely and live normal lives.
Israel, which has always claimed that it is not at war with Gaza’s citizens, does not have the right to turn the brutal blockade – which has not proved its effectiveness – into a political weapon. The reopening of the Rafah border crossing, which is controlled by Egypt, should also be reached by agreement. The terms and conditions for lifting the blockade and opening the crossing can be negotiated, but the principle should be set down now, in order to give the negotiators a vital tool for their efforts to get the Israel Defense Forces out of the Strip.