Today Israeli and Palestinian officials are meeting again in Cairo to broker a long-term truce and reevaluate the blockade of the Gaza Strip, hours before the latest ceasefire is set to expire at midnight local time. The five-day ceasefire went into effect late last Wednesday, after nearly a dozen humanitarian pauses throughout “Operation Protective Edge.”
Diplomatic teams met for three days last week, although the Israelis were not present for the full duration of the talks. Still the Israeli Minister of Information Yuval Steinitz said Wednesday at a press conference in Jerusalem hours before the five-day ceasefire was announced their team intends to “make Gaza into Ramallah” through the discussions.
Towards this end Israeli negotiators have stated their main task will be the de-militarization of Gaza akin to the West Bank following the Oslo Accords. “We want more than a ceasefire, we want the demilitarization of Gaza,” said Steinitz. “From a second point of view Gaza will be exactly like Ramallah. Also from an economic position, Gaza will become like Ramallah. And believe me life in Ramallah is much easier than Gaza,” he continued.
Under such an agreement local security forces in the Mediterranean strip would be granted continued use of light weapons. As of now that force is administered by Hamas, but as the Palestinian negotiating team is comprised of a unity coalition, headed by the West Bank-based Fatah, conceivably the Cairo talks also include discussion on re-structuring Gaza’s local government.
A Palestinian official told Mondoweiss relations between Palestinian factions are at a positive high. The PLO ultimately wants to re-establish a technocratic, national consensus government, while in negotiations with Israel over Gaza. “I believe for the first time we are in a game changer,” said PLO spokesman Javier Abu Eid on the possibility of a national unity government.
The extension of a 72-hour ceasefire last week indicated both sides were hoping to reach a permanent agreement. “Quiet will be answered with quiet, but if Hamas will resume the bombardment, our counter strike will be very strong,” said Steinitz, indicating Israel has not taken resuming air-strikes off the table.”
The Palestinian negotiating team has notably better standing in Cairo than they did earlier this year during the nine-months of direct talks with Israel brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry which collapsed last April. Palestinian officials have said they have drafted a letter of accession to the Rome Statue, which would allow them to take Israel to The Hague for war crimes charges, yet they are holding off on the process. At the same time, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is moving forward with investigating a litany of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity conducted by Israel during the 38-day offensive in Gaza. The UNHRC report is expected in March 2015.
Israel is clearly displeased with the human rights investigation. Steinitz dedicated nearly half of his briefing to describing the process as illegitimate based upon biased jurists, a lack of an inquiry into Hamas’s violations, and a lack of military experts on the panel. Rep. Steve Israel told the New York Post that during his joint meeting with Netanyahu in Israel last week along with seven other congressmen the Prime Minister asked for congressional support in pushing back Palestinian attempts to take Israel to The Hague. “The prime minister asked us to work together to ensure that this strategy of going to the ICC [International Criminal Court] does not succeed,” Rep. Israel said.
Israel’s concern over the human rights investigation and the ICC is not without cause. Although the investigation is on going, the preliminary reports are grave. In the southern town of Khuza’a, Jesse Rosenfeld of the Daily Beast discovered Palestinian bodies stacked in a bathroom, an apparent execution of civilians. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine is also drumming up war crimes charges against Israel.
The number of casualties in Gaza stands at nearly 2,000, including over 400 children. The Israeli army shelled six United Nations shelters housing displaced civilians with guarantees of inviolability as protected humanitarian spaces. In one instance nine were killed and 27 injured in the shelling of an UNRWA school in Rafah. “For this particular installation we notified the Israeli Army on 33 separate occasions that this school in Rafah was being used to accommodate the displaced, the last time only an hour before the incident,” said UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness.
Early in the ground invasion the Israeli army fired on el-Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital on three separate occasions. In the first two attacks, hospital staff and patients, still connected to feeding tubes and oxygen support, were trapped inside. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) attempted to coordinate a humanitarian evacuation of the hospital on July 17, 2014. However shelling began just before the ICRC contacted the facility’s director to let him know the Israelis agreed to hold fire.
Still it is the international community that is heading the charge against Israel in lieu of the Palestinian government vis-a-vis the ICC. By holding off on joining the Rome Statute Palestinian officials find themselves in a position of leverage against Israel in Cairo, all the while allowing for UN member nations to pressure Israel for them. If Israeli officials don’t agree to lift essential aspects of the blockade now in its eighth year, the Palestinian team can walk and still take Israel to The Hague. The PLO Central Council has already voted in support of joining the Rome Statue, and a grassroots campaign has started to bring Israel to the ICC.
“The only thing they can do against what we are doing is collective punishment,” said Abu Eid who is well aware that the PLO has stronger political ties today than in years past.
It was first expected that the Palestinian team would seek to fully lift Gaza’s siege in Cairo, allowing the free flow of peoples and goods, and the re-opening of Gaza’s seaport and airport. Until 2000, Gaza had an operational airport and until the 2006 siege, a seaport. Now, a Palestinian official said negotiators are working to peel back aspects of the blockade only. However, Israel said these fundamental aspects of controlling Gaza’s economic life will not be touched in this round of talks. “Maritime is left to the final status,” said Steinitz. Instead Israel will focus on the movement of peoples and goods through Gaza’s land crossings only. If a deal is not reached today on the status of Gaza, rocket fire and Israeli air-strikes are poised to resume.