The announcement of a ceasefire will bring a much-needed and welcome respite for the peoples of Israel and Palestine following the horrific violence of the past two weeks.
However, past history suggests this could result in another uneasy stand-off – one that will do nothing to address the Palestinians’ desire for self-determination and the Israelis’ desire for security – rather than take us closer to a lasting peace.
Indeed, since Hamas staged a bloody coup and ejected the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in 2007, Israel has been drawn into a vicious cycle of rocket attacks and airstrikes on four occasions. The price has been paid in the tragic loss of innocent Palestinian and Israeli lives.
Previous experience suggests too that, once the media focus passes, much of the international community will also lose interest in this seemingly intractable decades-long conflict.
But that would be a mistake. In both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there is a chronic lack of the kind of courageous and far-sighted leadership required to restart the political process, make tough compromises and choices, and bring about a negotiated two-state solution – ultimately, the only enduring way to end the conflict.
There is still action that the international community can and should embark upon – action that could ease the path to a two-state solution. At all times, our goal should be to strengthen the power and voices of moderates and peace-makers, and weaken that of extremists.
First, even before the current upsurge in violence the humanitarian situation in Gaza was dire: basic necessities, like electricity and clean drinking water, are in short supply and poverty and unemployment are eye-wateringly high. The responsibility for this lies largely with Hamas. It spends precious resources importing and manufacturing rockets and constructing tunnels to carry out terror attacks. Its refusal to give up its huge arsenal has also been the principal stumbling block to President Abbas’ attempts to reassert the PA’s authority over all of the Palestinian territories.
For the past two years – with the Egyptians playing a vital intermediary role – a truce has existed between Israel and Hamas. Israel has eased the economic pressure on Gaza, facilitating, for instance, the transfer of large sums of Qatari cash into the enclave. In return, Hamas has kept its military forces on a leash and attempted – not always successfully – to deter attacks by other militant groups, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Nonetheless, it’s also clear that Hamas has used this period of quiet to restock its own arms.
The barrage of rockets Hamas launched at Israel on 10 May – including, for the first time since 2014, at Jerusalem – broke the de facto ceasefire. With tensions running high in Jerusalem, its own financial resources depleted, and a politically weakened Abbas postponing elections planned for later this month, Hamas decided to use this moment to portray itself as the leader of the Palestinian national movement.
The international community should now work to put together a substantial, long-term economic reconstruction and revitalisation package for Gaza. Israel has previously indicated it would support measures, such as the establishment of a special Gaza seaport, so long as there were robust measures in place to prevent Hamas using it to smuggle illegal weapons into the territory. So the international community must also provide Israel with the security and reassurance it needs by working to ensure the disarmament of Hamas, thus honouring the Oslo Accords’ requirement that the Palestinian territories be demilitarised. Such a step would, of course, also be in the interests of Abbas and the PA.
Second, after President Trump’s fruitless and destructive attempts to isolate and impoverish it, the international community should work to bolster the PA. President Biden has already begun the process of restoring aid to, and diplomatic ties with, the Palestinians. A strong and stable Palestinian Authority – which can deliver vital services to its people – is good for the legitimate Palestinian aspirations to statehood. It is also good for Israeli security. And it will buttress Abbas’ standing against Hamas when, as he must do, the president allows the postponed elections to go ahead.
However, a bargain must be struck with the PA: in return for increased international aid and support, it must end its policy of inciting violence and glorifying terrorism. It needs to clean up its school curriculum – which, for instance, teaches young children the virtues of martyrdom – and stop its pernicious practice of paying “salaries” to terrorists serving time in Israeli prisons. As a key donor to the Palestinian education ministry, Britain needs to adopt a much tougher approach on this question.
Third, the international community needs to invest heavily in peacebuilding programmes in Israel-Palestine. For five years, LFI has been campaigning in support of the Alliance for Middle East Peace’s concept of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Modelled on the highly successful International Fund for Ireland, it would plough $200m annually into grassroots people-to-people projects which bring Israelis and Palestinians together and which, research evidence shows, reduces distrust and fosters “conflict-resolution values”.
Operating at scale, as they did in Northern Ireland, such projects would lay the civic society foundations for a future political deal, creating both constituencies for peace and a reservoir of public support to sustain the agreement through its inevitable ups and downs. The Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, passed last December by the US Congress, will pump $250m over the next five years into peace-building work – the largest such investment ever – but Britain, the EU and the Arab world need to play their part, too, to give this initiative the best chance of success. Next month’s G7 summit provides the perfect opportunity for British leadership to help galvanise support for this crucial work.
Fourth, the international community should throw its weight fully behind last year’s ground-breaking Abraham Accords. The normalisation agreements reached between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have huge political and economic potential – a recent RAND paper saw a potential $150bn boost to the five states over the next decade – but they could also help overcome the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
As Koby Huberman, co-founder of the Israeli Regional Initiative Group, has suggested they offer the prospect of a new “regional roadmap towards implementing a negotiated regional package deal with the two-state solution at its core”. The diplomatic process, he argues, should be “revised, in order to allow for a gradual, reciprocal, partial and parallel progress in both the Israeli-Palestinian track and the Israeli-Arab states track”.
The international community should thus work to encourage and incentivise further normalisation between Israel and the Arab states, while also seeking progress between Israel and the Palestinians. Such an approach would command strong support from the Israeli public, in contrast to moves to isolate and sanction the Jewish state which only nurtures the bunker mentality propagated by the country’s right-wing.
Finally, through its sponsorship of terrorism, proxy armies – such as Hamas, PIJ and Hezbollah – and various Shi’ite militias, Iran is the principal source of instability, violence and extremism in the Middle East. There is nothing covert about this. Indeed, in December the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, boasted: “Most of the weapons, missiles, facilities that Palestinian resistance groups have in Gaza are supplied by the IRGC Quds Force. The Islamic Republic used its diplomatic relationship with Sudan to establish a weapon factory for Gaza in Sudan.”
Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran was an abject failure, leaving Tehran closer than ever before to being able to manufacture a nuclear bomb. Biden is therefore right to seek a return to Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but the president is also right that any new agreement should be “stronger and longer”. It would thus not only strip away the 2015 agreement’s nuclear-related “sunset” clauses but also address the Islamic republic’s ballistic missile programme and its support for terror groups such as Hamas. Cutting off one of Hamas’ few remaining financial lifelines could have a transformative impact on the prospects for peace.
The answer to the latest round of death and destruction must therefore not be to despair. The extremists in the region want the world to give up on the cause of a negotiated two-state solution. Instead, there must be a renewed commitment to a meaningful political process. It won’t be easy or quick. There are no short-cuts. But it still provides the only path to sustainable peace for the peoples of this beautiful but blighted land.
Steve McCabe is Labour MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak, and chair of Labour Friends of Israel