Will these mediators help bring about a ceasefire in Gaza? - Hindustan Times
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Eye on the Middle East | Will these mediators help bring about a ceasefire in Gaza?

Feb 07, 2024 09:00 PM IST

Egypt and Qatar can not only help negotiate a peace deal between Israel and Gaza, but also bring long-term stability to the West Asia region

Is a ceasefire in Israel’s war in Gaza imminent? On January 29, intelligence officials from the United States met those from Qatar and Gaza, following which the prime minister of Qatar announced that “good progress” was made in the peace talks and that Hamas had been forwarded a new proposal (the details are unknown). While uncertainties still surround the exact terms demanded and offered, Hamas responded in the early hours of February 7, Israel itself announced a few hours later that it had received Hamas’ response (which the Qatari PM characterised as having some comments but being largely positive), and that it was being “intensely” studied.

Smoke billows over the southern Lebanese border village of El-Khiam during Israeli bombardment on February 7, 2024, amid cross-border tensions with Lebanon, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza. (Photo by Rabih DAHER / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
Smoke billows over the southern Lebanese border village of El-Khiam during Israeli bombardment on February 7, 2024, amid cross-border tensions with Lebanon, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza. (Photo by Rabih DAHER / AFP)(AFP)

While attempts for a ceasefire started right at the beginning of the four-month-old war, such positive developments in such a short period of time, indicate the success of the regional mediators, especially Egypt and Qatar.

How did they come to occupy this position?

Meet the mediators

Among all other Middle Eastern states, Egypt (bordering Gaza) and Jordan (bordering the West Bank) are more directly affected by any crest in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Until 1967, Egypt and Jordan held sovereignty over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively (before relinquishing it to entities such as the Palestinian Authority). At present, due to the concentration of Israel’s war against Hamas — primarily based in Gaza — Egypt has the greatest stake in the conflict.

Egypt’s relationship with Hamas has evolved, sharing relatively positive ties in recent years. While the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi regime has been vociferously hostile to Hamas since 2014, it briefly co-opted the group to fight an offshoot of the Islamic State in the Sinai peninsula in 2017. From this point, the ice thawed. Once the subject of determined Egyptian military and intelligence campaigns against them, Hamas went from being a “terror organisation” to a “resistance movement” for Egypt.

While Ismail Haniyeh (Hamas’ current chief) visited Egypt in 2017 and talked of a “new chapter in bilateral relations”, the group also broke ties (formally on paper) with the Muslim Brotherhood — the Egyptian government’s long-time political nemesis. Due to the large bank of goodwill generated and notwithstanding occasional friction, Egypt won global acclaim as the principal broker for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in 2021, after the two exchanged hostilities for around 11 days. Egypt had also pledged $500 million for Gaza’s reconstruction then. Reflecting Egypt’s pervasive involvement and Cairo’s desire for stability in the Sinai peninsula (any conflict in Gaza immediately risks more Palestinian refugees entering Egypt), its most prominent reaction to October 7th was to make public its earlier warnings to Israel that something was afoot.

Qatar, like Egypt, is the other key mediator.

However, Doha occupies a unique position in the current Middle Eastern landscape. Between 2017 and 2020, a wide range of political differences with other Arab states and Qatar’s alleged support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood resulted in an economic blockade of the country by other Arab states. Driven by regional geopolitics, Qatar was back in Arab good books by 2021, eventually contributing to rapprochements across the board in 2023. Its relationship with Hamas however, has remained steady since 2006. Keeping up a steady supply of funds, Qatar believes that Hamas is among the few options left for stable governance in Gaza — Haniyeh is believed to be in Qatar at present. Given Doha’s ability to act as a mediator (note that the US-Taliban talks in the twilight years of the Trump Presidency also occurred in Doha), enables it to fulfil that role along with Egypt.

The belligerents: Israel and Hamas

Thus far, Hamas has three main demands: One, a permanent ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli troops; two, the release of Palestinian prisoners; and three, recognise Hamas’ governance of Gaza. The bone of contention thus far has been of what comes first: full ceasefire or a release of hostages? While Hamas prioritised the former, Israel (with more conditions) prioritised the latter. As this contention comes close to resolution, Israel’s position too has evolved.

Israel’s view of the peace process has been tinted with the crisis of objectives it faces. It entered the war with a twin objective: to destroy Hamas completely and to secure the release of hostages. Thus, its military approach has been defined as one of large-scale punitive bombardment.

While Israeli military leadership characterises its attacks as being targeted against Hamas leaders, its overall approach has yielded limited gains, asserted even by US military experts. For instance, speaking to CBS News on February 4, General McKenzie, the former chief of US Central Command under both Donald Trump and current US President Joe Biden, said that Israel has not been able to meet any of its anti-Hamas objectives so far. His comments came even as US officials indicated an increasing degree of willingness to advise restraint to Israel (while continuing to support its objectives diplomatically), with Biden himself asserting since December that Netanyahu must “change”. With the US presidential elections looming in the distance, Israel’s continuing campaign and the increasing public cost are not in Washington’s interest.

On Israel’s part, it has climbed down in its objective of destroying Hamas to ensure credibility in what goals it sets vis-a-vis its ability to meet them under global scrutiny (with about 28,000 killed thus far in Gaza). Its focus now is to ensure that Hamas is “removed” from Gaza to go anywhere out of the strip. While Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, freshly rejected Hamas’ demands on January 22, domestic pressures to end the war and prioritise hostage release, are mounting. By February 6, Antony Blinken had travelled to both Doha and Cairo to catalyse progress in peace talks mediated by Qatar and Egypt, right after Israel itself had to admit that despite “significant gaps”, it saw the peace process as constructive.

Road ahead

The details of the agreement have remained closely guarded, as are Israel’s complete set of views on Hamas’ new proposal, after it rejected the January 22nd one. Unlike the earlier round, however, Israel has thus far refrained from dismissing any of Hamas’ views (regardless of what they are). Such a change in public attitude improves the actual chances of a prolonged ceasefire or an end to Israel’s immediate military campaign.

While Israel deals with the geopolitical fallout of its high-casualty campaign, Hamas too faces a crisis. According to recent intelligence-based reports from The Guardian, Yahya Sinwar of Hamas (who was reportedly among the chief planners of the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel) is himself now exhausted from fighting. While the challenges for the larger political challenges for the Israel-Palestine question and the Middle East only increase from this point on, states such as Qatar and Egypt can not only help negotiate a ceasefire deal but also become part of a broad-based process to stabilise the region.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal.

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