Not known for their rapid reaction capabilities, it took Arab governments about a week to convene an emergency meeting of the Arab League, which took place yesterday in Cairo, to discuss the rapidly escalating confrontation between Israel and Gaza.
To top it all off, this “extraordinary” session only managed to issue very ordinary statements and platitudes. Foreign ministers urged the Israeli government and Hamas to accept a ceasefire proposed by Egypt just a few hours before the Arab League met. Despite earlier refusing to take up its traditional mediating role, probably prompted by the new regime’s counterproductive hostility towards Hamas, Cairo has signalled that it is now willing to host high-level Palestinian and Israeli delegations for further talks, but only once the truce takes effect.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassem Brigades, seems to have rejected the idea of exchanging “calm for calm”, with others factions sounding objections to an unconditional ceasefire, which they say has done nothing in the past to alleviate the suffering of the people of Gaza. At the time of writing, Hamas had yet to issue an official response.
On the Israeli side, the idea of a ceasefire was firmly bashed by ultra-nationalists in the Knesset, with Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the far-right religious party HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) calling the notion a “disaster”. Despite these serious objections, Israel’s security cabinet held an eleventh-hour meeting in which it decided “to answer in the affirmative to the Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire beginning today at 9[am].”
It is unclear whether the Israeli cabinet truly accepted the ceasefire or whether it was taking advantage of Hamas’s kneejerk reaction to the initiative to play a smarter diplomatic game to give further operations in Gaza a greater sheen of legitimacy as it pursues its misguided mission to crush Hamas, after it played a significant role in creating this monster in the first place.
What is clear is that any ceasefire at this juncture, even if agreed by both sides, is unlikely to hold for long. This means that we urgently need a dramatic gesture that would bring an immediate cessation to the violence and pave the way to an enduring resolution.
In light of the support the Arab League has expressed for Palestinian calls for international protection in Gaza, I think that Arab leaders should put their feet where their mouths are.
With the situation in such deadly deadlock, I have a creative, non-violent idea for what the Arab League can do. Instead of foreign ministers meeting to discuss Gaza in Cairo, the Arab League’s heads of state and government should gather in Gaza itself in what would certainly constitute an “extraordinary session” in both word and deed.
Like the courageous international activists holed up in a Gaza hospital to protect it against planned Israeli airstrikes, Arab leaders can become a highly potent and symbolic human shield to protect the vulnerable and captive population of Gaza.
Just picture the scene. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the two King Abdullahs and other Arab leaders pass through the hermetically sealed Rafah crossing in a long and snaking motorcade which is met by a weary but relieved crowd pleased that the Arab world has finally showed its solidarity with them in such a high-profile manner.
In a show of sympathy with the suffering population, they can also visit hospitals, destroyed homes and grieving families. This would not only win them plaudits in Palestinian circles but also with their own publics at home.
The deployment of such a top-level Arab peace corps would almost certainly bring about a ceasefire, as the possible death of a president or monarch would constitute too great a risk for Israel, which wouldn’t want to widen the scope of the conflict. As for Hamas, it would, after such a spectacular gesture, want to keep fellow Arab leaders on side as it seeks to emerge from its international and regional isolation.
On the Gazan-Israeli front, which is stuck in a short-play time loop that is gradually spiralling towards total disaster, a cessation of hostilities will not be sufficient to stop history from repeating itself as tragedy and farce simultaneously.
In Gaza, the assembled Arab leaders with a mandate from the rest of the Arab League should offer to help the UN assemble a blue-helmeted peacekeeping force which would be deployed along all Gaza’s borders.
Its mission would be to stop the targeting of civilians, which constitutes a war crime for both sides, albeit of varying magnitudes, since Israel has killed at least 177 civilians, three-quarters of whom have been civilians, while Hamas’s attacks have not yet resulted in any deaths, though this is not out of want of trying, since the rockets have been fired randomly at civilian areas. Moreover, Hamas’s rockets have been detrimental to the Palestinians’ own interests. The rockets may be geographically targeted at Israel, where it has strengthened the hands of the extremists in Israel, but one of their main intended ideological targets is the rival Fatah movement, which has been seriously wounded in the crossfire.
The blue helmets would, first and foremost, protect Gaza’s vulnerable and besieged civilians from the wounding trauma and grief of continuing to play the role of Israel’s convenient punching bag which it can lash out at whenever its politicians feel a need to boost their popularity ratings or undermine their adversaries.
In addition, the international force would protect the socially marginalised and economically deprived residents of southern Israel from the militant rockets which – though they have caused only a fraction of the deaths and damage that results from Israel’s far superior firepower – nonetheless have resulted in significant fear, especially among children. These civilians deserve to live in security.
More importantly, Gaza needs to emerge from its isolation, which is both inhumane and has caused a humanitarian disaster. At the extraordinary session in Gaza, Egypt should indicate that, for the sake of the people of Gaza and regardless of what Cairo thinks of the Hamas regime, it will unilaterally end its side of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, while the Arab league would announce the creation of a special Gaza fund to rebuild the battered strip and its shattered economy. This should be the minimum Arabs aim for, and bringing Gaza into the Arab fold can be achieved without Israel’s acquiescence or co-operation.
Beyond this, the Arab League should also call on Israel to follow suit and end its sea and land blockade of Gaza and any future military operations there, in return for guarantees that Gaza-based militants will stop attacks against Israel. The details of such a wide-ranging package can be hammered out in Cairo between representatives of Hamas and Israel, whom, given the hostility between the two sides, can convene separately under Egyptian auspices.
More fundamentally, the League could use this golden and highly symbolic opportunity in Gaza to go over the heads of Israel’s intransigent and extremist government to appeal directly to the Israeli electorate and public by re-floating its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel comprehensive peace in return for a comprehensive settlement.
It is highly improbable that the vision I have outlined here will have many takers or stands much of a chance of success, as there are too many barriers which stand in the way. These include the Israeli government’s intransigence and ultra-nationalism, Hamas’s re-emerging radicalism and traditional rejectionist stance towards peace efforts, despite its indication that it would accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders, divisions within Palestinian ranks, despite the recent national unity agreement, and the current turbulent and divided nature of the wider Arab world.
Nevertheless, what I seek to demonstrate with this thought experiment and wishful mental exercise is that, without creative and fundamental solutions to the Gaza question and the wider conflict, history will continue to repeat itself indefinitely, while the human tragedy will multiply and mushroom.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian journalist, writer and blogger. He writes for a range of leading publications in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. He has spent half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. His website is www.chronikler.com. Follow him on @DiabolicalIdea