Egyptian efforts to secure a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in Gaza are continuing, but the different parties’ interests and their definition of what a ceasefire should constitute are throwing obstacles in the way.
Egypt simply wants a ceasefire. However, one of the issues that has to be settled is that of movement through Rafah, which is very problematic for Cairo. For one thing, opening Rafah while keeping almost all other crossings closed means that the Israeli strategy of handing responsibility for Gaza to Egypt is working. Secondly, such a situation will create certain domestic problems for Egypt, particularly by facilitating relations between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
The other problematic issue for Egypt is the Israeli position of holding Egypt responsible for what happens at the Gaza-Egypt border. Cairo might like to remind Israel that when the Israeli army was in charge of the border, neither Israel nor Egypt managed to stem weapons smuggling there.
Meanwhile, both Israel and Hamas are negotiating under the impression that the other side is in greater need of a ceasefire. It is for this reason that a ceasefire is not all either side is calling for.
Hamas is in a complicated position vis-a-vis any ceasefire. On the one hand, Hamas wants the Palestinian public and the Arab public at large to consider the Islamist movement as the counterpart to Israel, especially on the military level. Such an image consolidates an impression about its leadership position within Palestinian society and its claim to be the party controlling any Israeli-Palestinian dealings after the current military confrontation.
At the same time, Gaza has suffered immensely as a result of the ongoing confrontation. Hamas’ standing in Gaza thus needs calm. Hamas is trying to find a balance between striving for a ceasefire and consolidating its role as the leader of the resistance. As a result, Hamas needs to achieve something more than simply a ceasefire with Israel. At first, this included the demand that the ceasefire extend to the West Bank. Now it includes the demand that the Rafah crossing be opened with immediate effect.
Israel also feels it needs more than simply a cessation of hostilities. Thus, the Israeli government is trying to add the release of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, to its conditions for calm. At the same time, and for domestic political reasons, Israel will not accept the kind of prisoner exchange that Hamas is proposing.
This complicates the issue, since Hamas has justified holding on to Shalit as the only way to secure a significant prisoner exchange. Should Hamas now agree to a watered-down prisoner exchange, the movement will find it difficult to explain to Gazans why it did not agree to such a deal before, thus sparing Gazans many military incursions.
In addition, there is a feeling within Hamas in Gaza that keeping Shalit is a measure of protection against a massive Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. The captured soldier also offers Hamas the prize of direct contacts with all kinds of governments, personalities and institutions that are trying to negotiate his release.
In spite of the fact that a ceasefire in Gaza stands to benefit all parties, the chances of reaching a ceasefire, even with Egyptian mediation, are minimal. Israel-Gaza relations cannot be separated from Israeli-Palestinian relations generally nor from the many political and military components of the conflict.
It would be more constructive if Israel-Gaza relations, including on a ceasefire, were dealt with as part of overall Palestinian-Israeli relations. This, however, would require ending the Palestinian-Palestinian rift and the current domestic Israeli political crisis, which has left the current Israeli government unable to deliver on anything.