Despite statements made by Israeli officials suggesting a unilateral cessation of the ground war on Gaza, regional, including Egyptian and international diplomats following developments in the war, share a sentiment of uncertainty about what this Israeli decision actually means for the largely devastated and already much suffocated Gaza Strip – much less the chances of a re-eruption of the war on Gaza.
“We have been getting mixed messages from Israel and we are not sure what they are really up to – because on the one hand they are telling us and the Americans that they realise that there have to be future arrangements but in fact they are suggesting that they will not be making a deal with Hamas,” said an Egyptian diplomat. He added that the official public Israeli line does not conform with what has been discussed during the past few days, “not just between Egypt and Israel but also between Egypt and the US and Israel and the US.”
On Saturday evening, a Palestinian delegation bringing together representatives of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian factions, excluding Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was said by Egyptian officials to have arrived in Cairo and started talks with concerned Egyptian officials on what should be the de jure rather than de-facto ceasefire and the basis for a deal that goes beyond the humanitarian truce to a durable ‘calm’ between Gaza, which has been effectively still under Israeli occupation despite the 2005 redeployment, and Israel.
By Saturday midnight, concerned officials in Cairo, were preparing the ‘meeting rooms’ at a hotel in Cairo for parallel talks that should start on Sunday afternoon between Egyptian negotiators and both the Palestinian and Israeli delegations that “has not yet arrived,” according to an Egyptian official.
“We are expecting them to come; the Americans too are sending a delegation and we will see how things go in the next day or two.”
According to this official, Cairo had planned to have the talks on Saturday but things were delayed due to the collapse of a ceasefire that was concluded at around Thursday midnight, Middle East time, only hours after it had been jointly announced by the US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
For regional and Middle East based European diplomats, Israel was being hesitant about its next step and was sending conflicting messages. It is, said one European diplomat, “searching for things that cannot be achieved: it wants to coerce Hamas but not fully and it want to keep Gaza calm but it wants to give very little for the livelihood of this complicated and clearly suffering Strip.”
As far as both Cairo and Washington seem to agree a durable arrangement that brings calm to Egypt’s eastern, Israel’s southern, borders is not attainable without an arrangement that would allow the population of Gaza a much easier life than they have had since Hamas control took control of Gaza in July 2007 and would at the same time render Hamas and Jihad with hardly any capacity to resume militant resistance.
This joint objective is shared by the EU that is also uncomfortable, according to Brussels-based diplomats, about an abrupt and partial stop of the Israeli attacks without a conclusive deal that could keep the calm for a while to come.
The EU has offered to work with the Palestinian Authority, given the joint Egyptian-Israeli disagreement to make a deal on Gaza with Hamas and the other factions away from the Palestinian Authority, to help operate the Rafah border, the only non-Israeli controlled outlet for Gaza, and to work out with the Israelis an arrangement to facilitate the future operation of an internationally observed Gaza port – not airport.
Also in Cairo on Saturday evening to discuss the ‘better conditions for Gaza package' was Tony Blair, the Quartet envoy to the Middle East.
Egypt was determined to work out a deal in the coming days. Cairo is well aware of the volume of devastation Gaza has suffered during the recent Israeli war which has killed close to 1700 and left close to 8,000 wounded and, as one concerned official put it, “knows very well that if left this way Gaza could explode and when it explodes it could explode in our face.”
The calculations of the Israeli prime minister, agree Egyptian and other regional and Middle East based European diplomats, might not allow an imminent agreement given the positions within his right-wing political alliance.
“We have been talking to the Americans and the Americans have been putting some serious pressure on Israel to work on a settlement for the future that goes beyond just a cessation of the war; we are also counting on the Europeans and we are constantly engaging our Israeli partners – we will see how things go,” said an Egyptian diplomat.
What Egypt would also have to fix on the way to a settlement is a deal to which Hamas, Jihad and the other factions would agree to. Hamas and Jihad made it crystal clear to Cairo and to Washington, through both Doha and Ankara, that they would not agree to a deal that would render them “fully disabled from facing up to any future Israeli aggression.”
“In short, Israel wants a passive Hamas in a suffocated Gaza, and Hamas wants the siege ended or mostly without too much intervention from the Palestinian Authority and Egypt wants calm on its eastern borders and new limitations to the capacity of Hamas that it sees as a political adversary; to get this done one needs much more than getting the parties to talk, indirectly of course,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat. He added, “But for now it would be quite something to start the indirect talks – it is not impossible but it is not easy,” he added.
According to this and an other diplomat, who spoke on Saturday evening, it was not even all that clear whether actually Israel would order a real redeployment of its troops from Gaza – “or if it is a redeployment in Gaza.”