Talks between Hamas and former Middle East envoy Tony Blair to end the eight-year-long siege of Gaza have reportedly taken place before and since Blair’s resignation in May. Neither side will confirm or deny this, so it is likely that there have been talks, but the devil is in the details, which are sketchy and based entirely on anonymous sources.
What has been reported so far does not provide hope that the talks will achieve a breakthrough. Indeed, “no deal to end the siege is yet on the table or even close to being signed,” wrote David Hearst, editor of the Middle East Eye, which broke the story.
In July last year, Blair himself expressed his belief that Israel and Hamas will not trust each other “in the immediate term and possibly ever”.
Israel apparently has knowledge of the talks but is not involved. It has always refused to lift the Gaza blockade, at most temporarily easing restrictions.
There is nothing to indicate that Israel is about to change its mind, not least with the recent election of what is widely considered the most hard-line government in its history.
It includes members who believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has actually been too soft on Hamas, and want a full-scale invasion and reoccupation of Gaza to wipe out the Palestinian faction.
With previous ceasefire agreements, Israel has even balked at smaller-scale issues such as constructing a Gaza seaport and rebuilding the airport that was bombed in 2000 (both of which form part of the current talks).
Neither Hamas recognition of Israel nor Gaza’s demilitarisation are reportedly on the table. Since these have been among Israel’s central preconditions, it is hard to imagine their abandonment now, especially as Israel has previously refused far more limited terms. Blair’s motives are highly suspect, and not just because of his often-expressed staunch support for Israel.
Even if these talks do miraculously produce an agreement, there is no mention of a wider resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically Palestinian self-determination. This is a fundamental flaw shared by previous ceasefire agreements. The unrelenting entrenchment of its occupation and colonisation have shown Israel’s consistent opposition to a Palestinian state.
The current government has simply abandoned any pretence that Israel may entertain the idea. It includes parties and figures that either explicitly reject a Palestinian state, or accept one with conditions that make the likelihood of its establishment, let alone its viability, impossible. In a last-ditch scramble for votes, Netanyahu himself ruled out a Palestinian state under his watch.
Any agreement over Gaza is doomed to fail if it entails its detachment from the rest of the Palestinian cause. This is one of the few things all Palestinian factions agree on, and something mediators past and present have failed to acknowledge.
Besides the details of the talks, Blair’s motives are highly suspect, and not just because of his often-expressed staunch support for Israel. Last year, he said the destruction of Hamas “will only happen, if it happens, within the context of a way forward, particularly for the people of Gaza, that gives them some hope for the future. Because in the end a political movement like that has support on the ground, and you need to shift them and take away that support”. This has reportedly, and understandably, caused great unease within Hamas that Blair’s real agenda is not the welfare of Gazans but the downfall of the faction. As such, were its leadership to accept a deal brokered by Blair, it could cause a split within Hamas as deep as the rift between it and Fatah. That in itself could be its undoing.
There is speculation that the impetus behind the current talks is the growing realisation that the Gaza blockade has caused conditions that have allowed jihadists, including those pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), to establish a foothold in the territory and challenge Hamas’s dominance by carrying out a string of recent attacks.
Despite fierce opposition to Hamas from Israel and Egypt’s current government, the Palestinian faction is more palatable to them than the prospect of a jihadist state in Gaza, particularly given ISIL’s growing presence in neighbouring Sinai and Syria. Recently, Cairo opened the Rafah border crossing to allow cement for reconstruction in Gaza, and an Egyptian court delisted Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
Last week, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy described Hamas as Israel’s “frenemy”. The faction “is in a state of war with Israel, while its battle against other organisations in the Gaza Strip, which reject its authority, serves Israel’s security needs”.
Last month, Major-General Sami Turgeman, who as commander of Israel’s forces outside Gaza had a leading role in last year’s war with Hamas, said both sides “have shared interests”, including “quiet and calm”.
He added: “There is no substitute for Hamas as sovereign in the Strip. The substitute is the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and chaotic rule … and then the security situation would be much more problematic.” This does not mean, however, that Israel would countenance Hamas’s rehabilitation in an agreement that would boost the latter’s popularity.
Rather, Israel would seek to keep Hamas just strong enough to maintain control of Gaza without emboldening it against its main foe.
The danger for Hamas, then, is accepting a deal that effectively makes it Israel’s policeman in Gaza, much as the Palestinian Authority (PA) is Israel’s policeman in parts of the West Bank – something for which Hamas has heavily criticised the PA.
This article by award winning journalist Sharif Nashashibi was originally published by Al Jazeera