x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Uncertain truce sets the stage for statehood bid

What comes next in Gaza? In a sense, all sides are losers in the bloodshed, but this most recent violence may indeed be a game changer for Middle East politics and the continuing Palestinian crisis.

Dawn broke over Gaza yesterday not to the sound of rockets or shelling, the refrain of the previous eight days, but to a shaky ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The tally from the week of violence: more than 150 Palestinians and five Israelis killed, and hundreds wounded. Those are the numbers. Now come the questions.

For Palestinians and Israelis alike, the most pressing issue is whether this truce will hold and for how long. Brokered by Egypt and the United States, the diplomatic respite was already being tested hours after the ceasefire came into effect. Hamas rockets were fired into Israel overnight, while in the West Bank, Israeli forces arrested 55 people Israel termed "terror operatives".

What comes next? In a sense, all sides are losers in the bloodshed, but this most recent violence may indeed be a game changer for Middle East politics and the continuing Palestinian crisis. As Daoud Kattub argues in these pages today, there is some desperately needed momentum towards Palestinian unity.

Middle East politics have look dramatically different since the last time Israel laid siege to Gaza in 2008. During the Mubarak era, Israel could count on a pliant Cairo to oppose Hamas, which was founded as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. And yet this time, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government saw no choice but to shelve - for now - plans for a ground assault, "to give a chance to Egypt's proposal for a ceasefire". As always, Mr Netanyahu's words must be taken with a grain of salt, and there is much speculation about how the violence will affect Israeli elections in two months.

Mr Netanyahu will claim success for targeting Hamas's weapons caches, and for the assassination of Hamas strategist Ahmed Jaabari. But this offensive against civilians in Gaza, launched on the pretext of self-defence, was a disaster for Israel in the long-term view. Regardless of who wins in the January vote, Israel's leaders have merely incurred more international ill will that will further isolate them in the region.

Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi is being called the real victor of the conflict, having reasserted Cairo's regional diplomatic role. But Egypt must negotiate this new-found influence carefully. The durability of the ceasefire will be the first test for Mr Morsi, but in the long term the Islamist leader will still have to balance support for Hamas with Egypt's interests, which include the peace treaty with Israel. Perhaps one silver lining is that the deal brokered by Mr Morsi indicates that the Rafah crossing will be permanently opened - another crack in the punitive blockade strangling the Gaza Strip.

Most crucially, it will be Palestinians who determine the aftermath. Later this month, President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to present to the United Nations a request for statehood recognition - that state must include both the West Bank and Gaza. Mr Abbas's phone call to congratulate Hamas leaders yesterday was a glimmer of a hope, but the two factions have been divided for too long by disagreements that look very petty when weighed against the Palestinian struggle. That must change.

For a statehood bid to be anything more than symbolic - and to muster the political will to displace Israel's illegal West Bank settlements - leaders on both sides must put aside personal differences. Hamas has arguably emerged stronger from this conflict, but a Palestinian state will not be won on the battlefield.

Even if the violence has abated, the underlying grievance for Gazans, and for all Palestinians,remains. Gaza is plagued by food and water shortages, crippling unemployment, travel restrictions, poor health care and lost futures - all the result of Israel's crippling blockade. None of that will change until Palestinians realise their political aspirations. Otherwise this cycle of violence will continue.