European officials hope truce will prevent another Israeli ground invasion of Gaza


Officials say key objective must be to improve social conditions in Gaza

Anticipation and uncertainty surround the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel but EU diplomats say the prime objective must be to forge a lasting solution to the Gaza conflict.

Four years after the last big outburst of hostilities left 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, senior European officials hold out hope that the truce will prevent another Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

The situation is fluid. In advance of the truce, officials observing from Brussels said it was unclear whether Israel would seek to degrade Hamas’s military apparatus or depose its leadership if such an invasion went ahead.

Either way, diplomats said the need to prevent that eventuality was all the more pressing when the worsening civil war in Syria has started to spill over into Lebanon and Jordan and risks spreading into Iraq.

The effort to broker the ceasefire was complicated by a bomb attack yesterday on a bus in Tel Aviv, which triggered anxiety in diplomatic circles over the risk of an Israeli retaliation.

Under pressure from the US, however, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he was willing give the Egyptian ceasefire proposal a chance. In addition to the pledge to de-escalate the conflict, something deeper will be needed for any prospect of definitively reversing the cycle of violence.

All the signs last night were that Israel would cease military activity against the Gaza Strip while Hamas would cease rocket attacks into Israel.

For the deal to stick, diplomats said there would have to be commitment from Israel to end extrajudicial killings of top Hamas officials. With Egypt the guarantor of the arrangement, it too would be expected to stamp out arms smuggling into Gaza.

“What comes next is even more important,” said a senior EU official, speaking before the truce agreement.

“To prevent this happening again, we need to start working now for a more sustainable solution. We’ve got to change the fundamentals of the situation in the Gaza Strip to make sure people have a decent life and are no longer any threat.”

The big concern in diplomatic circles to ensure the truce does not become a temporary salve, with festering tensions on both sides building up inexorably to yet another eruption of violence down the line.

This presents a huge challenge to the international community, although the EU powers resolved years ago that economic revival is the key to peace in the territory. The European official said the main objective in the wake of the ceasefire should be to improve social and economic conditions markedly in the territory itself.

Only time will tell whether that is a viable prospect but the official said the immediate effort must go well beyond humanitarian assistance.

This would necessitate steps to tackle high unemployment and poverty by stimulating the moribund private sector economy and exports.

Another equally testing objective would be to open up trade and transport links between Gaza and the rest of the world, be they with Egypt, Israel or even by sea.

The early indications last night were that Gaza’s crossings with Israel would be opened further to allow freer movement of goods and people after a 24-hour period of quiet.

This is no small thing. Any long-term opening of Gaza’s borders with Israel would involve an easing of the blockade imposed five years ago after Hamas seized control of the territory from its foes in the western-backed Palestinian Authority.

This presents a clear challenge to Mr Netanyahu. With Iran’s nuclear programme a constant worry, the rapid outbreak of fighting with Hamas last week shows appeasement is not in vogue.

While Israeli critics often accuse Europe of a disconnection from reality, observers in Brussels insist any improvement in the general security situation in the wider region depends on improved security in and around Gaza.

Even if this is still a glittering prize, it remains a very big ask indeed and is subject to the unpredictable and violent vagaries of Middle East politics generally.

While ceasefire talk dominated on Tuesday, the bus attack darkened the mood. That said, European observers took hope from the presence of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Whatever happens in the coming days, EU officials believe Hamas may emerge stronger from the present phase of the conflict.

The movement has been emboldened by the Arab Spring, which swept away pro-western dictatorships and took the like-minded Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt. At the same time, observers say the Palestinian Authority faces something akin to double jeopardy.

Two years after the last round of failed peace talks with Israel, its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, would antagonise both Israel and the US if he pushed next week to secure “observer state” status at the UN general assembly. He would do the same if he moved towards a rapprochement with Hamas.