Gaza: Future planning

Dina Ezzat , Friday 7 Jun 2024

Cairo is engaged in parallel talks on a Gaza ceasefire and reconstruction of the Strip.

Gaza: Future planning

 

On 11 June, Egypt, Jordan and the UN will jointly convene a meeting, to take place by the Dead Sea, to address the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. International participants will examine ways to fast-track the delivery of aid to civilians in the Strip who have been displaced multiple times and left without shelter, food and water by Israel’s relentless war.

The meeting will underline the central role of UNRWA in Gaza. The UN agency has come under sustained attack by Israel which claims, without having provided a shred of evidence, that 12 UNRWA employees took part in the 7 October Hamas-led incursions into southern Israel. Despite an independent international committee finding that UNRWA strictly screens all staff, this week the Israeli Knesset adopted a draft bill designating UNRWA as a terror organisation.

 “UNRWA has our full support, something we are making clear to everyone,” said an Egyptian source.

 The source added it was not yet clear whether aid convoys, which he said the US has promised it will pressure Israel to allow, will pass through the Rafah Crossing or some other route.

 Unlike other crossings which are fully controlled by Israel, the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing had been managed by Hamas since it took control of Gaza following legislative elections in 2006. Before that, the border was managed under the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) that included Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the European Union.

 After Israel took control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing Egypt closed its side of the border. Cairo’s position, repeated several times over the last month, is that Egypt will only reopen the crossing when Israel pulls its troops from the border.

 On Sunday, Egypt hosted a meeting bringing together Egyptian, Israeli and US officials to discuss future management of the crossing. According to the source, the meeting examined options to manage the border “in line with the developments on the ground”. He stressed that, as far as Cairo is concerned, none of the options include direct Egyptian-Israeli management of the crossing.

“Egypt wants a third party to be present pending a long-term settlement based on the 2005 agreement,” said the source, adding that this will require Israel to withdraw from the immediate vicinity of the crossing. Otherwise, he explained, the US will need to pressure Israel to allow the entry of convoys carrying aid through the Karem Abu Salem Crossing.

  “It is Israel’s choice really. They can either withdraw from the border zone or let convoys pass through Karem Abu Salem as part of a temporary scheme pending the end of the war and the introduction of a new plan for Gaza.”

 On 1 June, in a televised address, US President Joe Biden spoke of a three-phase plan to end the war and return Israeli hostages. Speaking from the White House, Biden said the proposal envisages a six-week ceasefire during which Israeli forces withdraw from all populated areas of Gaza in return for the release of Israeli hostages in parallel with hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Negotiations for a lasting ceasefire would be ongoing and the truce would continue as long as the talks remained underway.

“As long as Hamas lives up to its commitments, a temporary ceasefire would become, in the words of the Israeli proposal, the cessation of hostilities permanently,” said Biden. The third phase will involve years of internationally backed reconstruction.

According to Biden, the scheme is based on a comprehensive Israeli proposal to end the war. The Egyptian source said the plan is very close to the semi-final draft that Egypt and Qatar worked on during May and which was accepted by Hamas but refused by Israel which claimed amendments had been introduced to the text without Tel Aviv being notified.

 Egypt and Qatar, the lead mediators between Hamas and Israel, announced their support for the offer made by Biden and called for immediate adoption of the plan. On Sunday, a Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo to discuss details of the deal.

Though Hamas said it will positively engage with the offer, on Monday Biden said the group was prevaricating. A source close to the Hamas negotiating team said Hamas accepted the deal in principle but had requested clarification of the timeline for “a full Israeli military withdrawal from Gaza”.

On Monday, the Israeli Defense Minister said that while Israel is not planning to maintain a full military presence in Gaza after the ceasefire it would continue to isolate pockets where it suspects Hamas leaders are based. The source close to the Hamas delegation said this would not be acceptable. Nor, he added, would Hamas agree to any deal that does not end further Israeli military operations in Gaza, “including operations designed to target Hamas leaders” on the ground.

The Egyptian source said that Egypt and Qatar are working with the US to fine tune the text and that “Hamas is largely on board now”.

“The problem,” he continued,“is in Israel. Biden said the offer was in essence an Israeli plan but two Israeli cabinet ministers are threatening to collapse the government if it is accepted.”

On Sunday, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said they opposed any deal before Hamas was destroyed. Nor has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled any commitment to the Biden plan.

According to the Egyptian source, much will depend on the pressure Washington places on Israel.

“If Netanyahu agrees to the deal, then we could work with Qatar to reassure Hamas, but we don’t know what Netanyahu will do. I don’t think even Biden knows what Netanyahu is up to.”

He added that since the collapse of a five-day truce in November, every attempt to reach a ceasefire has been “torpedoed by the Israelis”.

 The source pointed to growing pressure on Israel to end the war. “Israel is not in a good place internationally, it is risking the chance of further integration at the regional level” and there is pressure from the Israeli opposition and “some segments” of the Israeli public to end the war.

 Speaking on Monday, he said there was a 50-50 chance that the war will end by early July, and even if it does not “there will come a point where Netanyahu will have no choice but to end the aggression”.

 In anticipation of that point, Cairo is working on a reconstruction scheme for Gaza. “We are talking about it with the Qataris, the Americans and others,” said the source.

“It will take years to fix the damage done to Gaza and to start reconstruction there must be guarantees that the ceasefire will not collapse in the midst of rebuilding.”

Nor does the source expect reconstruction to start before an agreement on the post-war administration of Gaza is in place following “a full Israeli withdrawal”.

“Hamas leaders understand that, in terms of running Gaza, things will not go back to where they were on 6 October,” he said. And nobody is going to force a Palestinian government from the West Bank on Gaza against the will of the people because “a new phase of inter-Palestinian confrontation is the last thing we need”.

 The immediate task, he said, is to secure an agreement for “a broadly consensual government” that could run Gaza with “some support from the countries of the region, the UN and the EU”. Once the war comes to an end, details can then be finalised and a thorough plan for reconstruction put in place.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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