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3,300 rockets, 1,900 lives -- but is Mideast peace as far away as ever?

By Tim Lister, CNN
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Israel has been clear that the aim of Operation Protective Edge was to demilitarize Hamas
  • But CNN's Tim Lister says, to secure peace, Israel needs to offer Gazans a better future
  • He says many observers believe a Fatah-Hamas deal in April was the best chance for peace
  • Israel rejected that, he says, and while it could be implemented still, lives have been lost

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been crystal clear about the goals of Operation Protective Edge. Destroy Hamas' tunnels, end its rocket-fire (and that of Islamic Jihad), and bring about "sustainable quiet" for the people of Israel by demilitarizing Gaza.

Those aims were restated by Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, as the latest ceasefire came into force Tuesday. "We don't want to see that terrorist military machine rebuilt," he told CNN. "We have to make sure that Gaza stays demilitarized."

After nearly a month of combat, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) say they have destroyed 32 "offensive" tunnels.

Hamas' stocks of rockets have been depleted (by about two-thirds), its launch facilities hit hard, the IDF says. But how do you define "demilitarized?" Hamas' short-range mortars killed more Israelis than its rockets -- does Israel insist on those being surrendered? How would they even be found? And by whom?

Sustainable quiet will depend on factors Israel can influence, but not control: Above all its willingness to offer the 1.8 million people of Gaza a future that is something better than an open prison. It's estimated around two-thirds of Gazans have never left the Strip; Palestinian writer Amir Nizar Zuabi speaks of a desperate fatalism after nearly a decade of conflict.

"We, who were attacked from the sky, from the sea, from the fields, who had one-ton bombs dropped on our heads in pointless rounds of killing, have turned our back on life," he wrote in Haaretz this week.

To many observers, an agreement between Fatah and Hamas signed on April 23 this year provides the best -- perhaps the only -- hope of breaking the cycle of violence.
Tim Lister, CNN

Can they turn again -- and glimpse a future in which they can sell their produce in foreign markets and travel freely, in which they can find work, build homes and see their children receive an education without the overhanging fear of the next bombardment?

Such a possibility was envisaged in the agreement that ended the last conflict in 2012 and provided for "opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents' free movements and targeting residents in border areas."

But the agreement was not implemented.

"Israel had committed to holding indirect negotiations with Hamas over the implementation of the ceasefire but repeatedly delayed them," partly because of domestic political considerations, writes Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, in the London Review of Books.

Israeli officials and analysts have cited elections and coalition-building as delaying any meaningful engagement, even though 2013 saw fewer rocket attacks than any year since 2006.

Will it be different this time?

The destruction of entire Gaza neighborhoods (Zeitoun, Beit Hanoun, Khuzaa to name but three) and the displacement of more than 500,000 people according to U.N. estimates Tuesday -- will demand a huge reconstruction program.

Netanyahu says Israel is "demanding that the rehabilitation of Gaza be linked to its demilitarization." On the contrary, says Maen Areikat, the PLO's envoy in the U.S.: "What they should offer is an end to the blockade, an end to the occupation, before they can even ask the Palestinians to consider the idea of being demilitarized."

Retired Brigadier-General Yossi Kuperwasser, Director-General of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, says this linkage or sequencing is the $64,000 question. "The old ideas didn't work," he said. "We need new ones. We have to make sure the international community takes steps so that cement coming into Gaza is used for civilian projects."

Kuperwasser said a "totally different structure of supervision should be in place" before Israel can allow what might be called dual-use materials into Gaza.

That structure would include, according to Israeli officials, a Palestinian Authority police force at the Rafah crossing into Egypt. The European Union has offered to reactivate its Border Assistance Mission, which operated at the Rafah crossing between 2005 and 2007, as a second layer of supervision at all crossings.

Hamas: a change of heart, or tactics?

Will Hamas, chastened by a devastating onslaught that has left hundreds of its fighters dead or captured, and which has seen the tunnels in which it invested so heavily blown up and bulldozed, simply start over -- preparing for the next round? Or will it see a new reality amid the dust and rubble?

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Few observers expect Hamas to give up the language of defiance. It can derive some satisfaction from the level of resistance its fighters offered, especially in close-quarters fighting in places like Shujayya. The predictions of some Israeli officials that Hamas fighters would melt away once the going got tough were confounded.

Veteran defense writer Amos Harel says in Haaretz: "Hamas was not defeated; the organization will remain in power in Gaza and [will be] the key partner in any future agreement."

But the movement is beleaguered. Its leadership has gone underground, literally and metaphorically, to avoid assassination by IDF air-strikes. It faces a severe financial crisis, unable to pay the salaries of government employees.

It's been abandoned by former patrons Iran and Syria, and is caught in the growing Shia-Sunni divide across the Arab world. Its chief financier, Qatar, which has stepped in to pay $20 million a month in wages to Gazan workers, is under pressure from other Gulf states to scale back support for Hamas.

Above all President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has strangled Hamas economically and militarily. Soon after the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsy a year ago, el-Sisi -- then military chief -- moved to close the smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian-Gaza border, depriving Hamas of much-needed revenue and its only way to import weapons.

Hamas may also face growing dissent within Gaza, or at least less support, as people weigh up the cost, in human and financial terms, of the latest conflict. In Shujayya Tuesday, Hany Mahmoud el Harezen surveyed the ruins of his house.

"I am a wedding photographer. I have nothing to do with this war," he told CNN. "Maybe if we had got some concessions it would be worth it, but we got nothing."

It appears to be a growing sentiment, and one that Kuperwasser thinks will help change Hamas' calculations. "It has made a strategic decision," he says, "to give up part of its terrorist identity in order to keep control over Gaza."

Netanyahu's options

For now, Netanyahu can negotiate from a position of strength. He, his Defense Minister and the Israeli Chief of Staff have enjoyed better than 80% approval ratings for much of the campaign, despite the deaths of more than 60 Israeli soldiers -- a far higher toll than during the fully-fledged invasion of Gaza in 2008-09.

"There is trust from the Israeli public that this triumvirate know exactly what they are doing," said Marcus Sheff of the Israel Project. "They feel they have a leadership that is controlled and moderate in defending them and doing what needs to be done on the military and political level."

Even the opposition Labor Party has praised the conduct of the campaign. "They operate very carefully, proportionately. I think they defend Israel through their decisions," Labor Knesset member Nachman Shai told CNN.

If anything, it is the right-wing that challenges Netanyahu -- with some in the coalition government saying the campaign in Gaza has not gone far enough and that Hamas should be crushed. Netanyahu has warned cabinet ministers pushing for a more aggressive approach to fall into line. He appears to accept that Hamas cannot be eradicated, certainly not without a full occupation of Gaza that would be a quagmire and entail international condemnation.

Some Israeli officials believe Hamas actually serves a purpose -- preventing fundamentalist groups like Islamic Jihad from taking over Gaza. They are also happy to see the Palestinians in two camps: Hamas and the Palestinian Authority rather than united under one flag.

An end to the two-state solution?

Netanyahu is now the second-longest serving Prime Minister in Israel's history, To some observers his longevity is down to his innate caution, his refusal to make compromises that might down the road put Israel's security at risk.

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As the latest conflict in Gaza erupted, he said that had Israel given up security control of the West Bank, it would be inviting disaster. "If we were to pull out of Judea and Samaria, like they tell us to, there'd be a possibility of thousands of tunnels"

Expanding on the theme, Netanyahu added: "There cannot be a situation under any agreement in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan."

To many observers in Israel that was shorthand for "there will be no Palestinian state."

The prospect of a wider peace deal seems as far away as ever, even if its essential components are the same as they were 20 years ago -- a two-state solution, co-existence between Israel and the West Bank with mutually agreed territorial swaps, and the removal of most Jewish settlements from the West Bank.

Senior Israeli officials look at the turmoil around them, from Iraq and Syria to Libya, and ask whether settling the Palestinian issue is still the most pressing of the day. Arab governments are preoccupied with survival, not Palestinian liberation. Kuperwasser at Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs says the real threat to the region is Islamist radicalism; and that has brought together Israel and moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan (and by extension Saudi Arabia.)

To many observers, an agreement between Fatah and Hamas signed on April 23 this year provides the best -- perhaps the only -- hope of breaking the cycle of violence. In it, Hamas agreed to a "consensus government" of Palestinians that pledged non-violence, the recognition of Israel, and adherence to past agreements, a government that would restore the influence of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

"Tragically, Israel rejected this opportunity for peace and has succeeded in preventing the new government's deployment in Gaza," say former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson, a former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, in "Foreign Policy."

If this government is now allowed to take root in Gaza, to take responsibility for its reconstruction and allow for an internationally-agreed and verifiable program of demilitarization, perhaps the future can be different.

But as Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group concludes: "This solution would of course have been available to Israel, the U.S., Egypt and the Palestinian Authority in the weeks and months before the war began, before so many lives were shattered."

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