Hope among the ashes for peace in the Middle East?

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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With the Gaza cease-fire talks in Egypt stalled again, efforts have shifted to the United Nations and a possible Security Council resolution. France, Germany and Britain have circulated elements of such a resolution with the critical support of the United States. As reported in The New York Times, these elements include preventing Hamas from rearming, reopening all Gaza border crossings and giving the Palestinian Authority control over them, easing the Israeli blockade, and expediting international aid and reconstruction.

The proposed Security Council resolution will serve as a bridging mechanism for Israeli and Hamas conditions for a cease-fire that are poles apart. The primary reason for the gulf between the sides is basically the same. Israel's leadership is determined to show that it is the victor in the latest conflict and that Hamas rocket fire was unable to force Israel to accept any of Hamas' demands. Consequently, Israel has refused to offer anything more than vague commitments to easing the blockade and releasing prisoners while insisting on a complete end to rocket fire leading to the eventual complete disarmament of Hamas.

On the other hand, Hamas has to demonstrate that the widespread destruction of Gaza and the more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths were not in vain. Consequently, it cannot accept a cease-fire deal where there is a return to the conditions of blockade that existed before the recent conflict. Hamas also believes that it has more to lose by returning to these conditions than fighting and that the Palestinian population of Gaza supports this.

For Hamas, this latest Gaza conflict was one of survival, a choice between the slow strangulation of the Israeli blockade and the closure of the tunnels from Egypt and a war that had a chance of loosening the chokehold on Gaza, an option the Israelis were only too willing to engage.

This desperate bid for survival is exactly why Hamas has broken two cease-fires during negotiations by firing rockets into Israel. When it feels that its main cease-fire condition of lifting the blockade is being rejected, Hamas has adopted the maxim of "war as the continuation of politics through other means." It has employed rocket fire to pressure not just the Israelis but also the international community into addressing the suffocating conditions under which Gazans are condemned to live.

The option for force was a serious miscalculation. It demonstrates Hamas' immaturity as a "non-state" player. It also miscalculates Palestinian popular sentiment (and the unrestrained Israeli reaction). The Palestinian population in Gaza has no desire to return to the blockade conditions. It is willing to endure more sacrifices at the hands of the Israeli military only if they feel Hamas is negotiating in good faith to remove the Israeli blockade. If the conflict gets to the point where they feel that they are being used as pawns in a deadly game of chicken between Hamas rocket fire and Israeli bombardment, they will quickly sour on Hamas.

Most observers have noted that the latest Gaza conflict produced mixed results. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Ariel Ilan Roth, executive director of The Israel Institute, concluded that while Israel was able to destroy a large number of tunnels and depleted both Hamas' rocket stockpiles and fighter ranks, it was Hamas that emerged with a strategic victory.

International public opinion overwhelmingly saw the Palestinians as the victims, and by recent standards, Israeli military casualties were relatively high. Most importantly, Israelis across a wide swath of their country felt a profound loss of security under Hamas rocket fire that triggered warning sirens in major Israeli cities.

The winner/loser debate aside, Palestinian conditions for a cease-fire, namely an ending of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the opening of Gaza's borders, are legitimate. They are necessary first steps toward a negotiated settlement, and as the Security Council proposal shows, they have the support of the international community.

The Security Council's resolution offers hope for a path out of the frustrating impasse to which Israel and Gaza have predictably returned. If the United States and its partners can stand fast by their proposal and apply every means of persuasion to the belligerents, there may still be hope of a just peace in the Holy Land.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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