Before dismissing Hamas’ offer for a cease-fire, Israel might pause for a moment to ask whether it is looking a gift-horse in the mouth and then slaughtering it. Unlike Hamas’s previous terms for a ten-year hudna, or truce, the movement is not demanding an Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem, or indeed any settlement, or one inch of territory. It is not pinning an armistice on the return of one refugee. It simply asks for normal relations: The opportunity to trade and move across cease-fire lines.
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On the face of it, this looks the best offer Israel ever had: The prospect of an Arab administration offering Israel an interim normalization of ties without first concluding a final status agreement would be a breakthrough at any time. And it’s coming from the region’s seminal Islamist movement at a time when a regional Jihadi advance could offer Israel a protective bulwark more strategic than anything Iron Dome has to offer.
A sensible response might have been to test how serious Hamas really is. Would its commanders negotiate a limitation of forces agreement for the 10-year period and commit to remain, like other revolutionary movements achieving statehood, in their barracks? In return for Israel’s acceptance of Palestinian access and movement out of Gaza, would Hamas reciprocate by guaranteeing the safety of Israelis travelling to and trading with Gaza? Would its immigration authorities accept Israeli travel documents? If unfettered Israeli access is too much to stomach for all – could Israel experiment with those who are supposed to work in conflicts like journalists and physicians, and then in six-month increments including construction workers and engineers, and ultimately tourists curious to visit Gaza’s quirky hotels? If Israel provides passage for Muslim pilgrims to al-Aqsa, would they safeguard the passage of Jews to the shrine of Yisrael Najarah, Gaza’s 17th century chief rabbi and author of Sabbath zemirot?
The temptation would be to assume that the Qassam Brigades would simply use the interim to rebuild their fortifications. But at least some of Hamas’s leaders have long spoken of a hudna less as a timeout for rearmament than an opportunity to strive for a transformation of relations. De facto statehood has many advantages for Hamas as well as Israel’s leading coalition partner, Likud, whose charter upholds Jewish sovereignty over all the Land of Israel and precludes a Palestinian state. And while government-to-government agreements are essential for a cessation of conflict, they argue like many on Israel’s right, only people-to-people relations can end the conflict. Might kibbutzniks who have spent the past decade ducking mortar shells along Gaza’s border again dine in its fish restaurants? Might those religious Jews who claim such a longing for Gaza’s Jewish shrines find a way of returning to pray rather than prey in a tank?
The answers could ripple far beyond Gaza’s 350 square kilometers. By returning to the strategy of Gaza First, the international community first adopted after Israel’s 2005 engagement, Gaza could offer a model for normalizing relations which might halt the downward spiral to ever greater Arab and Israeli delegitimization and demonization of each other? Might normalization on the Gaza model serve as a step onwards towards, rather than a precondition of, a final settlement, in the West Bank and Israel, and even further afield in Lebanon and North Africa?
But while there is much to talk about, there are perilously few channels for doing so. If the current round of fighting is in part the result of a series of misunderstandings over their last cease-fire agreement, Israel is paying the price for refusing contacts with Gaza’s authorities and cajoling its allies into following suit. The recourse to war was hardly Hamas’s first choice for lifting Gaza’s blockade. It has tried repeated cease-fire agreements with Israel, the formalizing of border trade to replace the tunnel economy with Egypt, and the handover of the reins of government to the Palestinian Authority, in the hope that the outside world might deal with them instead. Nothing worked. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi instead began tightening the screws. Only when Israel and Gaza began fighting again did the world seem to listen.
A better way might have been for the belligerents to thrash out the issues themselves. If Benjamin Netanyahu and Ismail Haniya cannot bring themselves to sit at the same table at Erez, they should instruct their senior generals and, with the support of President Mahmoud Abbas, conclude an armistice agreement and open bridges arrangements. Israel has done it after previous wars with similarly intractably Arab foes.
But of course the death of 1000 Palestinians and 45 Israelis is too few to induce a sea-change. Buoyed by their regional allies, Israel’s leaders will soon recover from their shock. The Turkish-Qatar camp and the Egyptian-led anti-Islamist alliance will continue to treat Gaza as their political football, squabbling over whether the Brotherhood’s last experiment in government lives or dies. For a want of better leaders, Israel and Hamas will continue to serve as proxies for their great regional game and reject America’s offer of a middle path. At the end of the day, it takes more courage to make peace than war.
Nicolas Pelham is a correspondent for The Economist based in Jerusalem. He has been based in Cairo, Rabat and Baghdad and is the author of A New Muslim Order (2008) and co-author of A History of the Middle East (2010).