A race against famine in Gaza

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 14 Mar 2024

Talks of a truce have stalled while starvation looms over Gaza.

A race against famine


A last-ditch attempt to agree on a few days’ truce in Gaza at the start of Ramadan on Monday 11 March failed. An Egyptian source said it was due to “both sides’ intransigence. We have not really moved forward at all,” he said of the talks that convened in Cairo on Sunday and the early hours of Monday.

Last week, the source had said a considerable number of sticking points would hamper the truce deal – despite progress on other points. He specified these points as: security management of the situation in Gaza during the truce; the scope and level of the Israeli army’s presence during the truce; details of the possible return of Palestinians to northern Gaza ahead of Israel’s ground operations in Rafah; and the number and names of Hamas militant leaders that Israel wants out of Gaza.

On Monday evening, the source said that “it seems neither Israel nor Hamas has the intention of making any concessions. I think that we are at a point of complicated political calculations on both sides; this is making it very difficult to reach a breakthrough.” He added that the political leaders of Hamas need the approval of the military leaders and that Israeli negotiators have no capacity to make commitments. “This makes the talks very hard and inconclusive.”

On Monday and Tuesday, the Israeli media reported a conflict within the Israeli government over the limited prerogatives granted to Israeli negotiators – not just with regard to the recent round of talks but to all sessions of talks that had convened. A Cairo-based foreign diplomat who had just been in Israel said that “it is very very obvious that Netanyahu is the one who is making every single decision no matter how small because obviously it is his political career that is at stake.”

The diplomat said that Netanyahu is not ready to move towards a reconciliatory ceasefire despite the political pressure put on him by US President Joe Biden or CIA Chief William Burns, who personally represented Washington in the ceasefire talks several times. He argued that despite its repeated use of veto to block the UN Security Council from ordering a ceasefire in Gaza, the US has in fact been “increasing pressure on Netanyahu behind closed doors”.

A second Egyptian source said that during a meeting with Mossad Chief David Barnea, the US official made it clear that the Biden administration might have to increase conditionality on its otherwise unconditional arms supplies to Israel if the humanitarian situation in Gaza continued to worsen. Burns was in the Middle East for talks, including some unannounced meetings, to help reach a truce on the eve of Ramadan – but to no avail.

A diplomatic source familiar with the Burns talks said Burns failed even to convince Israel to suspend attacks for the first few days of Ramadan in return for a commitment that Hamas would not be firing rockets into southern Israel. He added that Burns also failed to secure a clear commitment from Israel to avoid a ground military offensive on Rafah during the holy month “despite clear warnings on the wide impact that such an attack would bring about, not just in Palestine” but across Muslim majority countries.

On Tuesday, Israel continued to bombard Gaza and to block the entry of aid into the Strip that it had been keeping under blockade for close to 20 consecutive years. On Tuesday, UNRWA Chief Philippe Lazzarini said that Israel returned an aid truck because it had children’s kits that included scissors.

International aid agencies have been warning of a looming famine in Gaza – with UN agencies suggesting that at least one quarter of the population in Gaza is about one step away from actual famine. A UN humanitarian source that spoke on condition of anonymity said the situation is actually worse – especially in the case of children, newborns and elderly people. “It is not just that they don’t have food; it is also that they have no medicine and in many cases no roof over their heads,” the humanitarian source said.

In a rare direct statement, this week Burns told the US Senate that children are starving in Gaza and without a ceasefire it will be impossible to secure efficient food distribution. Burns’ statements were made a few days after the US initiated a two-track operation to provide food and medicine to Gaza. The first was through air drops and the second, in cooperation with the UN and the European Union, through creating a temporary maritime line to carry aid from Cyprus to Gaza. The first ship carrying aid left Larnaca Port on Tuesday morning.

Several countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE have been involved in providing air-dropped aid. However, according to the UN humanitarian source who spoke this week, all of the material that has been dropped on Gaza does not provide for even 10 per cent of what the people of Gaza need – not to mention the “inefficiency of this method. What the people of Gaza need is a real truce, even if not a ceasefire, whereby they can be safely placed in decent housing, even if it is just makeshift housing units, and have sufficient calories and sufficient basic medical care,” the source said.

In a meeting with a delegation of the American Chamber of Commerce this week in Cairo, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that a comprehensive ceasefire is necessary. According to a press statement issued by his office, Egypt’s top diplomat added that international humanitarian law and UN Resolution 2720, on the safe aid delivery to Gaza, have to be respected.

According to Egyptian sources, Cairo had hoped for a ceasefire even before Ramadan started but it was not surprising that attempts to reach one failed. Next week, the sources said, Cairo will resume its attempt at a truce that would lead to a ceasefire. Again, they are cautioning that the situation is very difficult given the political positions of both sides.

This week, Netanyahu made it clear that he would not abandon his plans for a ground offensive on Rafah, where the vast majority of Palestinians now are. Meanwhile, Ismail Hanieh, head of the Hamas political bureau, said this week that the resistance movement cannot waste the sacrifices of the Palestinian people by succumbing to Netanyahu’s scheme.

Since the war started Israeli bombardment has killed over 30,000 Palestinians, wounded close to 80,000, some with permanent injuries, and destroyed 80 per cent of Gaza’s buildings, including medical facilities.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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