EU calls on Israel to restore a political horizon after unconditional ceasefire in Gaza war

EU calls on Israel to restore a political horizon after unconditional ceasefire in Gaza war
Iron Dome, credit: GPO/Haim Zach

After 3 days of hostilities during the weekend, Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip agreed before midnight Sunday evening on an unconditional ceasefire after mediation by Egypt and Qatar.

The Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas since 2006 and is considered as a terrorist organisation by the EU and the international community. Contrary to the previous round of fighting in May 2021, which lasted 11 days and involved Hamas, this time it was its minor rival, the more extreme Islamic Jihad, which threatened Israel and launched indiscriminate rocket attacks across the border.

In 2021, the war broke out after mounting tension and escalation of violence in Jerusalem which was mismanaged by the Israeli government and played into the hands of Hamas. No victor emerged after the fighting ended and both sides could claim that they had achieved their goals.

This time the fighting took place in the shadow of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the on-going war there and was hardly noticed by foreign media.

The hostilities erupted almost by accident and miscalculations by both sides after Israel had arrested a leading PIJ member in the occupied West Bank. The arrest prompted PIJ to threaten revenge and forced Israel to instruct the population along its border with Gaza to take shelter. War seemed inevitable. Israel decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against a PIJ leader in Gaza on Friday.

In a statement on Monday, the European External Action Service (EEAS) welcomed the ceasefire between Israel and PIJ. It also deplored the loss of civilian lives in Gaza and called for an investigation into them. The statement stressed the need to consolidate the ceasefire and work towards making the situation in Gaza sustainable by restoring a political horizon.

Peter Stano, the Commission’s lead spokesperson on foreign affairs, explained at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday that irrespective of the causes of the civilian casualties they need to be investigated in order to prevent civilians from being killed in future flare-ups of violence.

Was Israel taken by surprise by Islamic Jihad’s threats and left not choice but to strike first?

“The arrest was a routine measure which Israel is doing regularly,” Eyal Zisser, Vice-Rector of Tel Aviv University and Professor in Contemporary Middle Eastern History, told The Brussels Times. “The first impression that the arrested person had been injured was wrong. The arrest was a blow against PIJ but it had not threatened seriously to attack Israel in the past.”

Israel was surprised by PIJ’s reaction but could not allow itself to appear frightened and accept that each arrest in the West Bank will lead to tension in the south at the border with Gaza, he added. When the threats continued, the government was forced to react so as not to appear weak by the Israeli public.

Another circumstance was that the Israeli strike against Islamic Jihad coincided with the Jewish fasting day Tisha B’Av in memory of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. There were fears that allowing Jews to enter the Temple Mount, or  al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf with its two mosques, might lead to an escalation which would prompt Hamas to interfere in the fighting as happened last year.

Up to 2,000 persons reportedly visited the Temple Mount, including a far-right racist member of the parliament, but this time the police was better prepared and the situation did not go out of control.

“If there were no elections, the government could perhaps have imposed restrictions on the entry of Jews into the Temple Mount, but in the current situation it couldn’t allow itself to do so,” Professor Zisser explained, referring to the snap elections due on 1 November, the fifth elections in three and a half years.

Most Palestinians in the West Bank and in Israel refused to be dragged by PIJ into a new military confrontation with Israel.

Ziyad al-Nakhala, the secretary general of PIJ who is living outside Gaza, claimed in an interview in Iran that his organisation had been victorious. From his point of view, it might look like a “victory” since PIJ managed to disrupt life in southern Israel and keep the population next to the border in shelters for days.

Israel sees the outcome of the latest round of hostilities as a tactical victory since PIJ did not achieve anything, not even (for the time being) the release of any of its prisoners in Israel.

Has Israel restored its deterrence or will there be similar brief military operations in the future?

“Islamic Jihad launched close to 1,000 rockets against Israel. From its point of view, it was an achievement and it stopped the rocket fire because it agreed to the ceasefire,” Professor Zisser replied

“Islamic Jihad is a relatively small and weak organisation so you wouldn’t expect any other result, in particular as Hamas didn’t participate in the fighting. Basically, I don’t think that the situation will change very much in the long-term if and when it will deteriorate again.”

Dr Michael Milshtein, Head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, agrees. “This military operation wasn’t so unique. It was similar to many rounds of escalation during the last decade and didn’t result in a strategic victory.”

“Unfortunately, the fact that the PIJ planned terror attacks against Israel and wasn’t deterred although its intentions were exposed shows some gaps before the operation began. “The problem is Hamas.  It still doesn’t show any intention to enforce its power over the other players in Gaza and this could lead to future escalation, even soon.”

Egypt, which mediated the ceasefire, has stated that it will work for the release of the prisoners held by Israel but Milshtein sees little chance that any of PIJ’s demands will be met. “This could cause next clash in Gaza.”

Did Islamic Jihad act independently or was it pushed to threaten and attack Israel by Iran?

“I assess that PIJ acted independently,” Dr Milshtein replied.  “This organization doesn’t really need Iran to push it to carry out terror attacks." He added that the fighting did not change the power relations in the Gaza Strip. “Hamas was and still is much stronger than the PIJ.  Islamic Jihad doesn’t dare to take any step that contradicts Hamas policy.”

Israel took extra care this time not to cause collateral damage. Videos showed how Israeli strikes were aborted until passing civilians were out of harm’s way. Some of the Palestinian civilian casualties were caused by errand PIJ rockets that fell short inside Gaza. In one incident, a rocket hit a Palestinian home in the Jabalia neighborhood and killed four children.

But civilian population in Gaza was left in shock and sorry when the fighting ended. If it would have continued, and if Hamas with its much bigger arsenal of rockets would have participated in it, there would have been more civilian casualties, also on the Israeli side despite Iron Dome, the Israeli air defence, which reportedly intercepted 96 % of the rockets.

What lessons can be learned about avoiding civilian casualties?

“Unfortunately, a broader conflict could cause many more dilemmas,” Dr Milshtein replied. “I'm sure Israel should be much more careful because this kind of damage and civilian casualties could change the fate and image of a future conflict.”

In a televised speech to the Israeli public on Monday evening, acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid also spoke directly to the residents of the Gaza Strip: “There is another way. We know how to protect ourselves from anyone who threatens us, but we also know how to provide employment, a livelihood and a life of dignity to those who wish to live by our side in peace.”

“There is another way to live. The way of the Abraham Accords, of the Negev Summit, of innovation and prosperity, of regional development and joint projects. The choice is yours. Your future is in your hands.”

In this regard, the care-taker government which Lapid leads until the elections in November continues the policy of the previous coalition government which collapsed last June. It focused on economic progress until the conditions, as it saw them, for political talks with the Palestinians are ripe and could be agreed upon by all parties in the government.

What should or could be done to restore the political horizon and ensure that these recurrent wars or military operations will not happen in the future?

Neither of the two experts is optimistic whatever Israel will do. “I don’t think there is a political horizon as long as Hamas is ruling," Dr Milshtein replied.  “Even if Israel would promote dramatic economic and social improvements, Hamas’ ideological DNA and basic aspirations won’t go away."

Israel could maximum achieve a long-term truce, or Hudna, with Hamas but neither a peace agreement nor mutual recognition. It would not make any difference if the Palestinian Authority would return to Gaza or of if Egypt would take over control of the area. “The only possibility for change is by popular internal protest but there are no signs that it’s coming.”

Neither Israel nor Hamas and perhaps also the Palestinian Authority has any interest in a peace solution, Professor Zisser replied. “They don’t think that it’s possible. It would require concessions that politically they are not prepared to make for the sake of peace. Hamas is dedicated to its resistance ideology against Israel. If it would make peace, it wouldn’t be Hamas any longer.”

“We are left to manage the conflict the best we can from one round of violence to the next in the absence of a real possibility to break the way to peace,” he concluded.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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