Egyptian mediators are consulting with the Israelis and Hamas leaders in Gaza in the hope of concluding a deal that informed officials say has been tantalisingly close for the last 12 weeks.
The delay, say Egyptian sources, is mainly a result of Hamas’ reluctance to solidly commit to some of Israel’s security demands.
The consultations are expected to intensify, and be conducted at a higher level than previously, in an attempt to head off strikes threatened by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Official sources in Cairo say Egypt, Israel and the US agreed to the importance of securing “a relatively solid and sustainable” ceasefire between Israel and Hamas during talks that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi held on the sidelines of last month’s United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The aim, they add, is not just to avert a new Israel war on an already devastated Gaza but to halt any further deterioration in the humanitarian situation in the overpopulated and impoverished Strip.
Avoiding an explosion in Gaza over stifling living conditions is essential to the interests of both Egypt and Israel, say the sources, and a ceasefire, tried and tested for a few months, is a prerequisite for the launch of any Gaza economic development plan.
“We have managed to secure a level of restraint from both sides during the past few weeks but this ceasefire will remain vulnerable in the absence of a full deal between Hamas and Israel,” said a well-informed Egyptian source.
“We made it clear to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that we are not willing to see an explosion in Gaza and we are worried that in the absence of a reliable ceasefire to allow for the start of economic reconstruction anything could happen.”
Egypt was close to concluding a ceasefire last month but the deal was scuppered by last minute doubts by Hamas over some of the security commitments it had earlier agreed, and by Israeli concerns that reaching a deal with Hamas apart from the Palestinian Authority (PA) could be portrayed domestically as tantamount to official Israeli recognition of Hamas.
Informed regional diplomats say Israel is now willing to move ahead with an unsigned deal with Hamas, brokered by Egypt, under which Cairo will directly monitor Hamas’ compliance.
Cairo-based European diplomats say Israel is hoping a pre-Palestinian reconciliation ceasefire will pressure the PA into ending its stalling over the reconciliation plans between Hamas in Gaza and the PA in Ramallah that Egypt has put forward.
Speaking from Ramallah by phone a PA source, who had earlier insisted the ceasefire would not change the position of the PA which has refused any deal that does not bring Gaza back under its authority, this week said the PA might be open to some elements of the reconciliation draft provided they ensure Hamas does not enjoy any unilateral administrative prerogatives in Gaza.
Hamas sources have said repeatedly that they would rather work in parallel on the ceasefire and reconciliation tracks but warned that if the PA is hoping for a situation that overlooks Hamas’ role in Gaza, or Israel is hoping for a ceasefire in return for limited, conditional improvements in humanitarian conditions in the Strip, then no deals would be reached on either path.
In the words of one Hamas leader: “We don’t want a war with Israel, and we want to end the current Palestinian divide, but the other sides have to be reasonable.”
Cairo officials say they are growing “impatient” with PA stalling and Hamas equivocation over the reconciliation and ceasefire deals and are sending “clear messages” to Gaza and Ramallah that their patience is wearing thin.
The same officials warn that if a ceasefire is not concluded in the next couple of weeks there are no guarantees against a sudden deterioration in the situation. While that does not mean an all-out Israeli war on Gaza, it certainly threatens an escalation in Israeli strikes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Ceasefire deliberations