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Little time left

Naomi Conrad / mllNovember 20, 2012

As the fighting in Gaza continues, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and the United Nations are trying to achieve a cease-fire. But will a cease-fire lead to peace, or just more war later?

A Palestinian woman reacts in front of a destroyed house after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City November 19, 2012. Hostilities between Islamist militants and Israel entered a sixth day on Monday as diplomatic efforts were set to intensify to try to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and Israeli air strikes on Gaza. International pressure for a ceasefire seemed certain to mount after the deadliest single incident in the flare-up on Sunday claimed the lives of at least 11 Palestinian civilians, including four children. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Image: Reuters

The negotiators in Cairo haven't got much time - 24, perhaps 48 hours - if they are to reach a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, says Yossi Mekelberg of the British think tank Chatham House, "otherwise the conflict will turn into a real war." By that he means that Israel will send in ground troops - and that would increase the number of civilian casualties further.

Mekelberg is worried: after all, reservists have been called up and stationed on the border with Gaza.

Meanwhile the fighting continues. "Listen to that," says Omar Shaban, director of a Gazan think tank Pal-Think. "That's a rocket that has just gone over my house." He hasn't left his house in Gaza City for days. That morning, he tells Deutsche Welle, three people were killed by Israel just 20 meters away. He's very worried that there won't be any agreement, but the fact that everyone is sitting together at the negotiating table shows that both Israel and Hamas want de-escalation.

Egypthas to take the lead

Representatives of both sides have been talking in Cairo since the weekend with envoys from Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.

"Israel is insisting on its security," says Mekelberg as he sums up the demands of the two sides. "They don't want any more rockets to be fired from Gaza into Israel. Hamas needs an assurance that Israel will relax the blockade and open the border between Gaza and the rest of the world."

Morsi Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Morsi is having to play a leading role in the search for a cease-fireImage: Getty Images

It's the Egyptian government representatives who are pushing the negotiations forward, supported by Qatar. As Mekelberg says, "Egypt has the political clout and Qatar has the financial means." Egypt, which has brokered several cease-fires between Israel and Hamas, would be considerably strengthened if the talks were to succeed. "That could represent a breakthrough for the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as a regional peacemaker," says Mekelberg.

In the end, it will be Egypt, Qatar and Turkey which will have to take the lead. "The US in particular doesn't want to take a lead," says Yesid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "That's the policy they've taken on almost everything from the Libyan intervention to Syria and now. They don't want to take the lead, especially when the lead would involve putting some kind of pressure at some point, inevitably, on Israel."

The UN only has a supporting role

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon spoke to Morsi on Monday, and on Wednesday he's expecting to have talks with the Israeli and Palestinian delegations. Sayigh believes, though, the UN's role will be limited as long as the US isn't more involved. "The UN as such has no more power than its key members give it," he says, but "they've been obviously paralyzed over Syria." He's sure they'll support any Egyptian plan.

An Israeli soldier sits in his tank in a deployment area on November 19, 2012 on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Israel wants to be sure that attacks from Gaza ceaseImage: Getty Images

Shahan is also convinced the UN will only play a supporting role. "The United Nations doesn't have much influence on Hamas, if for no other reason than that Ban Ki Moon has only been to Gaza twice." He also thinks that Egypt and Qatar hold the key.

No interest in war

It's the regional powers, and above all Egypt, which will have to reverse the escalating violence, and, as both Mekelberg and Shahan believe, the regional powers know it.

No one has an interest in a war - neither the Gazans nor the Egyptians, who, as Mekelberg points out, have plenty of domestic problems. The former Israeli ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, says Israel doesn't want a war either. He told German public broadcaster WDR, "We know it would be disastrous for everyone." And it would only bring temporary respite.

A cease-fire is not a permanent solution

Shaban says the same applies to a cease-fire: "We do not think that such a truce will be kept by both sides for many years. This is why we ask all the time for a political solution, to resume the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians." He wants the US and Europe, especially Germany and Great Britain, to push the two sides towards the negotiating table and peace talks.

All the same, he fears that the militant Salafist groups which have emerged in Gaza over the past few years could undermine any cease-fire, even though "so far, Hamas has managed to keep them under control."

But Sayigh believes that it will be only possible to counter the radical groups effectively if Hamas reaches an agreement with Israel by which both sides agree only to attack military targets. "Then Hamas can say: we've forced Israel to agree to this, and now you have to go along with it too."

Mekelberg too is convinced that a cease-fire would only be a temporary solution: "Perhaps both sides will realize that life in Gaza must be more bearable and that southern Israel must become safer." That would be the first step towards a political process which the Middle East needs urgently, but for longer than the next 48 hours.