Gaza update: political wrangling is making a peace deal even harder

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First, the most important news. At last count, the death toll, as reported by Gaza’s ministry of health, stands at 37,232 people, including more than 15,000 children, with a further 84,932 people wounded. It’s not known how many people are buried beneath the rubble of the more than half of Gaza’s buildings that are reported to have been destroyed.

But it’s equally important to note that the violence began on October 7 when Hamas launched its savage attack on Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 251 people hostage. Of those, 116 remain in Hamas hands, although one-third of these are now thought to have died.

Meanwhile the talking continues. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was wearing his exasperation very much on his sleeve when he reported on June 12 that Hamas wants more changes to the ceasefire deal the White House had thought was oven ready. Or, as he put it: “A deal that the entire world is behind, that Israel has accepted, and Hamas could have answered with a single word: ‘yes’.

“Instead, Hamas waited nearly two weeks and then proposed more changes, a number of which go beyond positions that it had previously taken and accepted. As a result, the war that Hamas started … will go on, more people will suffer, Palestinians will suffer, more Israelis will suffer.”

As the wrangling continued in Doha, two other big stories were, first, the rescue of four hostages by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on June 8, in a military operation which reportedly killed up to 274 Palestinians. And second, the resignation of Benny Gantz from Israel’s war cabinet the following day. Gantz, who leads the National Unity party – which controls the largest number of seats in the Knesset – had planned to resign the day before, but delayed by 24 hours because of the news of the rescue.

The resignation doesn’t affect the numbers a great deal – Netanyahu still commands 64 of the 120 Knesset members. But Gantz is well connected in Washington. His departing shot at Netanyahu – that he “is stopping us from reaching a true victory” and that he had no plan for Gaza “the day after” the war finishes – will strike a chord with the Biden administration, which is desperate to see a resolution to the crisis, now in its ninth month.

It was interesting that the four hostages rescued at the weekend appeared to be in relatively good health. This, writes veteran Middle East watcher Paul Rogers of the University of Bradford, suggests that Hamas is “very far from defeat if it can maintain that degree of organisation for so long when faced persistently with overwhelming firepower”.

Rogers says Netanyahu should have heeded Joe Biden’s friendly advice in the aftermath of October 7 when he empathised with Israel’s pain and rage at the attack, but cautioned: “While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.” But Netanyahu appears to have fallen into a carefully thought through trap laid by Hamas which – says Rogers – would have involved gaming multiple scenarios based on a very strong Israeli reaction.

Two divided houses

What has made negotiations particularly tricky, writes John Strawson, an expert in Middle East politics from the University of East London, is that not only is the Israeli camp divided over how it ends the conflict in Gaza, but also that Hamas has two distinct power bases. One is in Gaza, led by military chief Yahya Sinwar, and one is in Doha, led by political chief Ismail Haniyeh.

The Wall Street Journal recently obtained correspondence between Sinwar and Haniyeh which suggested that Sinwar is happy with the way the conflict is progressing, views the catastrophic casualty list as “necessary sacrifices” and believes he has the weapons and fighters to keep the conflict going for the foreseeable future. Haniyeh, meanwhile, wants to plot a future for Gaza (with a role for Hamas) after the fighting stops.

That Hamas has come up with what is essentially a new set of demands is, writes Strawson, an indication that Sinwar has the upper hand and “he can continue the war and at the same time blame the Israelis” for rejecting the deal.

Interestingly this idea of two Hamas groups is echoed by Colin Irwin, a researcher from the University of Liverpool, who was in Israel recently talking with contacts he made back in 2008 when preparing the ground for US senator George Mitchell. Mitchell was the architect of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, and in 2008 had been appointed as the newly elected Barack Obama’s peace envoy to the Middle East.

Here, Irwin recalls his meeting with Hamas on December 3 2008 and has provided a copy of his notes of the meeting. It was clear at that stage, he recalls, that Hamas was prepared to accept a Palestinian state within the internationally recognised boundaries following the war in 1967. On this basis, Hamas was also willing to guarantee the security of Israel.

Map of Gaza showing Israeli clearing operations as at June 12.
Israel is having to refocus on areas of Gaza it thought it had cleared of Hamas fighters. Institute for the Study of War

At that stage, what complicated the issue was that Hamas did not recognise the existence of the state of Israel. This, writes Irwin, was similar to the position taken by Sinn Fein, which could not put its name to a power-sharing agreement while its constitution prohibited it taking seats in a Northern Ireland assembly – it could only participate in a parliament that represented a united Ireland.

So Irwin and his team conducted polling among Sinn Fein supporters that established that they wanted their own representatives in the new Northern Ireland assembly. Sinn Fein duly called a special Ard Fheis (general meeting) and changed its constitution. The rest is history.

There may have been bumps along the way (and the Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont only returned to sitting in February after being deadlocked over Brexit for two years). But, by and large, the killings have stopped. Irwin believes Hamas would have been willing to go down the same path in 2008. Now it’s not so clear.

A divisive issue

Needless to say, the issue of Gaza has been very divisive in the UK as well (although the two biggest political parties have conspicuously avoided going there as the general election campaign moves into its second half).

But on university campuses across Britain, tensions have played out between the right to political protest aiming to get university authorities to examine their economic ties with Israel and the need to deliver education and protect the rights of all students, including those Jewish students who have felt intimidated by the depth of feeling in the student body.

The student protests have led to a number of arrests on various campuses, which threaten to blight the futures of young people who have fallen foul of the law during the protests.

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, and David Mead, a professor of UK human rights law at the University of East Anglia, have drafted a detailed set of principles setting out what they believe are fair terms for universities and students alike.

Finally in the Gaza update of May 30, we mistakenly referred to both Israel and Hamas as “countries”, which was a poor choice of words, something pointed out to us by a vigilant reader.

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