Déjà vu in Gaza

For months, there has been an intense debate about whether Germany should assume greater foreign policy responsibility. Yet when it came to the conflict in Gaza, Germany's politicians have once again slipped into the role of the horrified bystander. By Muriel Asseburg und René Wildangel

By Muriel Asseburg & René Wildangel

German politicians across the spectrum have not tired of emphasising that Israel has the right to defend itself. While they deplored the civilian casualties, they have also supported Israeli demands for a demilitarisation of Gaza, even as Israel continued to bombard the coastal strip. Thus they signalled their approval of Israel's military action, albeit indirectly. After all, who else should disarm Hamas, if not Israel?

Moreover, it took Germany and its European partners quite some time to come up with any kind of serious initiative for a ceasefire, long-term truce or conflict resolution. Instead, they stood by while US Secretary of State John Kerry continued his increasingly helpless but indefatigable attempts to achieve a workable agreement. A meeting of EU foreign ministers in Paris on 26 July did not get beyond issuing a call for a humanitarian ceasefire.

Since the beginning of this year, the Europeans have been without a special envoy to the Middle East, i.e. someone who would be able to speak with and listen to parties on the ground. In any case, EU member states do not maintain any contact with Hamas, which is on the EU list of terrorist organisations. This deprives the EU of the opportunity to act as an independent mediator and to have influence on the ground.

What is more, the Middle East Quartet (US, EU, Russia and UN) has not been playing a role for quite some time now. Tony Blair, who still serves as the group's representative, made a fool of himself with an initiative for a ceasefire that he intended to negotiate only with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

No effective EU mediation initiative

While Germany, France and Britain recently offered European assistance for reconstruction and monitoring at the border crossings with a view to supporting the opening up of the Gaza Strip, they have not assumed an active mediation role.

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Can Egypt and its president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (pictured here) really be considered an honest broker between Israel and Hamas? According to Muriel Asseburg and René Wildangel, "the strict anti-Islamist stance of the Sisi regime has ostensibly reduced Egypt's ability to negotiate a ceasefire"

The continued support for Egypt as chief negotiator is also jarring. Cairo undoubtedly has an important role to play as Israel's partner and as the neighbour of both Israel and Gaza. Yet the strict anti-Islamist stance of the Sisi regime has ostensibly reduced Egypt's ability to negotiate a ceasefire. It can hardly be viewed as an honest broker between Israel and Hamas. Moreover, there are no other mediators acceptable to both sides.

As a result, the Israeli ground offensive only came to an end following a unilateral decision by Israel to withdraw, and this although the originally stated goal – namely to stop Hamas rocket attacks – had not been reached after 29 days, despite the deployment of massive force. The violence has since continued, albeit (for now) on a much diminished level. Ceasefire talks have been slow and difficult. This is not least due to the fact that the Netanyahu government is trying to avoid making any concessions that might be seen as yielding to Hamas.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's proposal to transfer control of the Gaza Strip to the UN appears to be aimed at absolving Israel, the occupying power, of any responsibility for the civilian population there and of co-responsibility for the disastrous war, as well as permanently subjecting the Palestinian territories to different regimes rather than fostering political and territorial unity within a Palestinian state.

Breaking the vicious cycle of violence

Following the cessation of hostilities, the most pressing matter is first and foremost humanitarian aid for the population and the reconstruction of basic infrastructure, such as the only electricity plant and sewage plants, as well as schools and hospitals destroyed in the war. However, all this should not once again be offloaded onto the international community, particularly if the next round of hostilities is already programmed to happen.

This means that, in contrast to 2012, a ceasefire agreement would not only have to envisage an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip, it would also have to contain concrete measures for its implementation. In fact, the agreements negotiated by the US when Israel withdrew from the coastal enclave in 2005, which aimed to facilitate movement of Palestinian people and goods (the so-called "Agreement on Movement and Access"), were either not implemented at all or were rapidly rescinded.

After this devastating war, the opportunity must now be finally seized to break the cycle of blockade, despair and violence and to set in motion a dynamic aimed at ending the occupation. Otherwise, the risk of yet again sliding into a phase of violence – after 2006, 2008/2009, 2012 and now 2014 – will remain very high. And it will be difficult to isolate both Jerusalem and the West Bank from such violence should it flare up again.

If the next round of fighting in Gaza is to be prevented, a fundamental change in the status quo is necessary. To this end, Germany and its European partners should initiate a conference for Gaza with ambitions that go far beyond that of a donors' meeting. Such a conference should oblige not only the Palestinians, but above all the occupying power Israel and Egypt, to fulfil their obligations and lay the foundations for a durable, internationally-monitored and guaranteed opening of the coastal strip. In this context and in line with the proposals put forward by European foreign ministers, a beefed-up version of the former European border mission EUBAM Rafah could assume duties at border crossings to Egypt and Israel to prevent arms smuggling, among other things.

The bombardment of the Gaza Strip by the Israel Defense Forces on 9 August 2014 (photo: Reuters)
The bombardment of Gaza by Israel in August 2014: "After this devastating war, the opportunity must now be finally seized to break the cycle of blockade, despair and violence and to set in motion a dynamic aimed at ending the occupation," write Muriel Asseburg and René Wildangel

No two-state settlement without freedom of movement

For a long time now, various EU member states have been offering to provide appropriate scanners to minimise security risks and facilitate the smooth passage of goods. Yet in December 2013, Israel was still refusing to install equipment provided by the Netherlands, which would have been suitable for the screening of exports from Gaza to the West Bank and thus address Israeli security concerns. For this reason, it is essential that Israel and Egypt commit to guaranteeing Palestinian freedom of movement and the free movement of goods.

Without freedom of movement and the establishment of a connection between Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem, the prospect of a two-state settlement, which has already been pushed into the distant future, will become obsolete. Without the regular movement of goods, the economy of the Gaza Strip cannot recover. Other central issues include the abolition of restricted zones imposed by Israel that prevent the cultivation of up to a third of Gaza's farmland, the reinstatement of the 20-nautical-mile fishing zone set out in the Oslo Agreement (fishery is a key segment of the Gaza economy), as well as the building of a port.

Gaza's predominantly young population needs prospects and opportunities. This – rather than bombardments that mostly affect the civilian population – is the only way to work towards a peaceful co-existence with Israel.

In all these endeavours, the unity government that was established in early June on the basis of an agreement between Hamas and Fatah must be the international community's main partner on the Palestinian side. While this government was also tentatively welcomed by Germany and its European and American partners, they have offered little in the way of practical support. Moreover, Germany and its allies did nothing to criticise Israel when it began to actively undermine the new government, despite the fact that the Palestinian unity government had pledged to abide by what are known as the Quartet criteria: renunciation of violence, recognition of previous accords, and recognition of Israel's right to exist.

The emphasis must now be on ensuring that this government is in a position to truly govern in Gaza as well. There is indeed a chance that this could happen: a joint delegation of Palestinian factions is currently negotiating a ceasefire. Hamas has already indicated that PA security forces could police the crossings on the Palestinian side.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he could not tolerate a Palestinian state, which makes all efforts to achieve a two-state settlement incredibly difficult. Asseburg and Wildangel also point to the fact that he has in recent years vigorously pursued Israel's settlement of the West Bank and Jerusalem and has not implemented the ceasefire agreements of 2012 aimed at relaxing the blockade of the Gaza Strip

Long-term stabilisation and demilitarisation

Long-term stabilisation and perhaps also demilitarisation are only possible within the framework of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It is obvious that without external help, the conflicting parties will not succeed in reaching an agreement that guarantees the rights of everyone living between the Mediterranean and Jordan.

For this reason, Germany, together with its European partners, should resume efforts to bring about a Security Council resolution that sets out the parameters of a conflict settlement, foresees robust mediation for negotiations over its details within a clear time frame, and clearly states the consequences of a failure of negotiations. This would allow Germany to assume its oft-emphasised special responsibility for Israel's security, which it holds would be best safeguarded by a two-state settlement.

It is also evident that this is unlikely to succeed without confrontation with the right-wing coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, the Israeli Prime Minister himself recently made it unequivocally clear that for him, a Palestinian state is inconceivable. Furthermore, he has in recent years vigorously pursued Israel's settlement and land-grab policy in the West Bank and Jerusalem and has failed to implement the ceasefire agreements of 2012 aimed at relaxing the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

In view of the massive violence against civilians during the latest Gaza war, which was also employed during protests in the West Bank, resulting in 12 deaths and hundreds of injured people there, the German government should urgently review its weapons shipments to and military co-operation with the occupying power Israel.

It should also support the investigation into war crimes and human rights violations, regardless of whether these were perpetrated by Hamas or the Israeli army. And it should give up its resistance to Palestine's ambitions to join the International Criminal Court, an institution that Germany has, after all, thrown its diplomatic weight behind and which is in a position to deal with war crimes in a credible and neutral manner.

Not least, Germany should no longer support Israel's settlement policy, which is illegal under international law. To this end, it should support not only the labelling of settlement products available for sale within the EU, but also a ban on imports.

Muriel Asseburg & René Wildangel

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

Dr Muriel Asseburg is Senior Fellow at the Middle East and Africa Division of the German Institute for International Security and Affairs (SWP) in Berlin; Dr. René Wildangel runs the regional office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Ramallah. A short version of this article was published in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 8 August 2014