Wednesday 7 January 2009

Gaza: If Not the EU, Who?

My Crisis Group colleague, Robert Blecher, and I penned this for the European Voice on 7 January 2009. It was reprinted in a number of national outlets across Europe.


The collapse of the weak ceasefire in December and the return to all-out conflict between Israel and Gaza under Hamas has tempted many to say, "here we go again", with comparisons to the summer 2006 Israel-Lebanon war flowing freely from the keyboards of commentators everywhere.

Indeed, there are some similarities: provoked once too often, Israel responded then as now with overwhelming military power against an Islamist force and the civilian infrastructure, resulting in enormous casualties for which both sides blame each other. The international community is split on how to act, as the US tacitly gives Israel a green light to carry on its attack and the Arab world shouts and cries with little effect. All the while, the horror and humiliation are stoking the next generation’s militancy.

The question this time, however, is whether anyone in the international community has learned the lessons of 2006.

Two and a half years ago, it took weeks of bloody warfare before the US, Europeans and regional actors responded with sufficient urgency and concern. Prior to that, many operated under the illusion that, given enough time, Israel would deal Lebanon’s Hizbollah a crushing blow, force its surrender and change the political map. As it turned out, they ultimately pushed for a ceasefire whose terms could have been obtained earlier, sparing needless loss of life and destruction.

The US seems not to have internalised this lesson, with its repeated insistence on a "durable" ceasefire echoing its 2006 stance that certain political conditions be met before the shooting stops. Once again, the US is not demonstrating any sense of urgency, sending a clear message it will tolerate the ongoing catastrophe.

Europe, by contrast, enjoys some political flexibility and therefore has a chance to make an impact by helping to bring about the necessary ceasefire. Encouragingly, there are signs that some in the EU have learned from the bitter experience of Lebanon that time is of the essence.

Devising a ceasefire basically acceptable to both sides is not impossible. Israel is unlikely to agree to a deal that does not include steps that end Hamas’s ability to acquire, stockpile and launch rockets. Hamas is unlikely to agree to a cessation of hostilities without an opening of Gaza’s border crossings, a reasonable guarantee that they remain that way, and participation in the process. With these constraints in mind, a realistic ceasefire with international guarantees would include four key elements:

First, an indefinite ceasefire has to mean that Hamas would halt all rocket launches, keep armed militants at least 500 metres from Israel’s border and make other armed organisations comply, and that Israel would halt all military attacks on, and withdraw all troops from Gaza.

Second, there have to be real efforts to end arms smuggling into Gaza, led by Egypt in coordination with regional and international actors.

Third, the agreement would require the dispatch of a multinational monitoring presence to verify adherence to the ceasefire, serve as liaison between the two sides and defuse potential crises. Countries like France, Turkey and Qatar as well as organisations such as the UN could play an important part in this.

Finally, it must assure that Gaza’s borders with Israel and Egypt are opened and consistently remain that way, through the return of the EU presence to the Rafah crossing and its extension to Gaza’s crossings with Israel, and coordination between Hamas authorities and the (Ramallah-based) Palestinian Authority (PA) to ensure their smooth functioning.

Both sides are likely to raise complaints with parts of this. Yet, the proposed international presence to monitor adherence to the ceasefire and oversee crossing operations would raise the political costs of violating commitments, and in doing so, meet the respective core concerns of both parties.

The EU, now under the Czech presidency, has a chance to be the fair and impartial broker in this, and Brussels and Prague must hold that position. Given the devastation and the current vacuum of international leadership, the EU has an opportunity -- and obligation -- to step forward and mediate a deal to end the bloodshed.

Robert Blecher is Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group, where Andrew Stroehlein is Director of Media and Information.

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