Peace in the Middle East?

Professor Nathan Brown says there will be a cease-fire but long-term prospects dim.
Gaza
July 23, 2014
 
Diplomatic efforts are underway to end two weeks of intense fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants on the Gaza Strip. The bloodshed started on July 8 after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge to counter terrorist rocket attacks and destroy Hamas-controlled tunnels in Gaza. The military incursion has resulted in the death of more than 20 Israeli soldiers and two civilians and approximately 680 Palestinian civilians, marking some of the highest casualty numbers in the decades-old conflict.
 
Although Israel and Hamas signed a cease-fire following warfare in 2012, the agreement didn’t hold for long—and negotiators are grappling with ways to achieve lasting peace in the region. Professor of Political Science and International Affairs Nathan Brown has written extensively on Palestinian and Arab politics, and spoke to George Washington Today about the latest clash and what steps the international community is taking to reach an agreement that addresses the demands of both sides.
 
Q: What ultimately led to Operation Protective Edge and the most recent round of violence?
A: Neither Israel nor Hamas saw the cease-fire agreement they signed in 2012 as a permanent arrangement. That said, there is no sign that either side wanted a full escalation now. Both sides are very much reactive to the other. In the past, there were some actors restraining and mediating—but this time there are not.
 
Q: Part of Israel's military approach has been to destroy hidden tunnels operated by Hamas through airstrikes and on-the-ground combat. How has this changed the nature of the fighting in the area? 
A: The ground fighting this time seems to focus on the tunnels where Hamas is defending them. In past escalations, Hamas fighters simply disappeared and avoided direct confrontations. Previous rounds of fighting have had a terrible impact on civilian lives. The main impact of such casualties is to increase diplomatic efforts to arrange a cease-fire. 
 
Q: Secretary John Kerry left for Cairo this week to help with a peace agreement brokered by Egypt. What are the terms both sides are asking for? Does Egypt's plan address these requests?
A: There are two problems with the cease-fire talks. On a procedural level, it's not simply that the two sides are not on speaking terms. Worse, there is no single party that has the trust of both sides. Egypt is not neutral—it is seen as an interested and hostile party by Hamas, and it is not clear that the Egyptians are even interacting much with Hamas. The second problem is substantive. Israel has aims it wishes to achieve before a cease-fire and then wishes to return to the status quo; Hamas wishes to negotiate a lessening of the blockade on Gaza before agreeing to end the fighting.
 
The U.S. seems to want to get a cease-fire right away and then turn attention to some longer-term issues, including perhaps lessening the siege of Gaza—a siege imposed as much by Egypt as by Israel. It is not clear that Egypt is prepared to undertake that step. The U.S. might also want to use a cease-fire as an opportunity to further the role of the Palestinian West Bank government in Gaza now that the Hamas government ruling Gaza since 1987 seems to be relinquishing control. 
 
Q: How likely is a cease-fire? What challenges may arise in negotiations?
A: There will be a cease-fire; the only question is on what terms and how much damage is done before then. All cease-fires between Hamas and Israel are tenuous since neither side accepts the legitimacy of the other. Hamas charges that past Israeli agreements were not kept; Israel speaks of a concept of "deterrence" that seems to require a strong response to any perceived Hamas transgression.