War is Peace: Al-Sisi, Abu Mazen, Netanyahu and the Cynical Ceasefire

Following Abu Mazen’s too-hasty embrace of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and corresponding criticism of Hamas, the popular narrative of the ongoing crisis in Gaza is that Hamas has betrayed the truce agreement despite Israel’s hours-long unilateral compliance. The truth of the matter is that Hamas didn’t violate the ceasefire because it never signed onto it. In fact, they have from the outset rejected any such reprieve prior to negotiating the terms of an armistice with Israel. Yet despite their clear position with regards to a truce, Hamas was not consulted in the formation of Egypt’s proposal—in fact, they claim to have found out about it through media reports. The proposal put forward by the Egyptians was not a serious attempt to bring the conflict to a resolution—it will exacerbate the crisis, as it was likely designed to do.

Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, shares Israel’s desire to destroy Hamas—an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom al-Sisi perhaps rightly views as an existential threat to his nascent regime; both groups are banned in Egypt under al-Sisi’s orders. He jailed his predecessor on trumped up charges of colluding with Hamas. He indefinitely closed the Rafah Crossing into Egypt—Gaza’s only connection to the outside world given Israel’s illegal land and sea blockade–in an attempt to choke off Hamas and weaken its position among Gazans. He subsequently destroyed the tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle assets into Gaza circumventing the crossing. He is even courting a joint missile-defense system with Israel in order to help contain the group and its patron Iran—as part of a growing security partnership between the two countries.

All of these measures have and continue to feed into the ill-substantiated race-baiting conspiracies resonating across the Arab world (and beyond) that al-Sisi is Jewish and a Manchurian candidate for Israel and its Zionist hardliners. This impression is further exacerbated by Israel’s quiet but persistent support for al-Sisi’s deposing of President Muhammad Mursi, as well as his personal rise to power and subsequent brutal crackdown on Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Accordingly, al-Sisi was and remains a radically inappropriate choice as a mediator between Hamas and Israel, notwithstanding Egypt’s traditional role in easing tensions between the two parties. As the situation in Gaza deteriorated, al-Sisi sat on his hands for nearly a week, likely savoring Israel’s attempts at breaking Hamas. And then, despite it being easily within its power to do so, Egypt refused to give Hamas any kind of an “out” in their proposal, anything they could take back to their constituents as a victory—al-Sisi put forward a proposal destined, likely intended, to fail, and only under pressure from the Arab world and the West to put on a spectacle of “doing something.”

The United States suffers from a similar conflict of interest preventing them from serving as a mediator between Hamas and Israel: America has refused to recognize Hamas’ government as legitimate from the time they rose to power in 2006 until the formation of its unity government last month. Instead, the Bush II Administration passed sanctions punishing Gazans for exercising their democratic agency when Hamas rejected Israel’s terms for forming a government. Thereafter, they plotted (unsuccessfully) to forcibly overthrow Hamas in collaboration with Fatah. When these measures failed, Israel and Egypt began their blockade of the Gaza Strip, turning it into a virtual open-air prison—of course, with the support of the White House.  This situation has persisted, virtually unabated, to the present.

The Obama Administration has blocked U.N. initiatives to recognize Palestine as a state despite overwhelming international support—vigorously (and unsuccessfully) opposing Palestinians gaining even an “observer status” in the United Nations. And they use their position on the Security Council to nullify any meaningful sanctions or interventions against Israel, despite its repeated and unapologetic defiance of international rules and norms.

Simultaneously, the Obama Administration is going out of its way to mend fences with Israel following its revelation that Israel’s continued settlement building was the primary cause of the recent peace talks’ failure, as well as Secretary of State Kerry’s (quickly-retracted) warning that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state if they do not manage to achieve a two-state solution, and the Administration’s long-overdue recognition of the Palestinian Unity government despite the important role Hamas plays in that body.

As a result of these moves, each of which outraged the Israelis (much like their nuclear negotiations with Iran), the United States is in no position to non-coercively leverage concessions out of Israel—and they remain, as always, unwilling to resort to coercion. In fact, while encouraging restraint, the Administration has been falling all over itself to recognize Israel’s right to self-defense—a right which has never been extended to Palestinians under any circumstances. In fact, since the outbreak of the conflict, the U.S. has voted to double Israel’s funding for its “Iron Dome” missile defense system.

Also conspicuously absent is the usual hand-wringing and saber-rattling from U.S. regional allies. This is because like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan are in the process of extending Israel’s “Iron Dome” and “Arrow” systems across their territories as well, in a U.S. brokered joint missile defense initiative aimed at containing Iran and its regional “resistance” allies (such as Hamas). Before long, all of these powers may actually be helping to shoot down rockets on Israel’s behalf—be they from Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Gaza. Even Turkey is likely to play an indirect role in this new system—collecting and sharing information with NATO, to be dispersed among NATO partners, principally the United States–used explicitly to contain Iran and its allies and to defend U.S. interests in the region, to include Israel. Nonetheless, Israel is unlikely to negotiate with Turkey for an end to the crisis. This leaves Qatar as probably the only regional power with the proper clout and independence to broker a deal.

In the meantime, Egypt’s bad-faith proposal has served as a public relations coup for Israel. It changes the narrative and muddies the guilt: now it isn’t Israel that is responding with radically inappropriate force to a non-threat (over the last ten years, a total of 24 Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets, hardly an existential crisis), an occupying power preposterously claiming self-defense— but instead the story is increasingly that Hamas is being unreasonable. Despite Israel having stopping their attacks for six hours, Hamas continued their offensive, “forcing” Israel to retaliate—especially as they have suffered their first fatality in this most recent unrest (as compared to nearly 200 dead on the Palestinian side, with more than a thousand injured, tens of thousands displaced, and untold numbers traumatized, and critical infrastructure destroyed).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was upfront about his intention to leverage al-Sisi’s proposal to justify expanding and intensifying Israel’s campaign into Gaza, insisting, “If Hamas does not accept the ceasefire proposal, as would now seem to be the case, Israel would have all international legitimacy to broaden the military operation to achieve the required quiet.”

For his part, Unity Government notwithstanding, Abu Mazen appears to be working with Egypt and Israel to in yet another bid to alienate Hamas and expand his own influence in Gaza by proposing that the Rafah Crossing be reopened, albeit manned by his loyalist forces, with most of Hamas’ other demands unaddressed (to the detriment of the Palestinian people)—a proposal which Egypt and Israel are likely to welcome, but Hamas will be naturally inclined to reject. It is likely that Israel will ramp up operations in the lead-up to this proposal, increasing the desperation of Gazans in order to render the deal more difficult for Hamas to refuse—a maneuver sure to backfire, as it always does, perpetuating ­ad infinitum the omnidirectional war of attrition which has defined the region for decades now, in which the only real losers are the Palestinian people.

Originally published 7/17/2014 by Al-Jazeera America.

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