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Divisions between Egypt and Hamas complicate prospects for Mideast cease-fire

July 17, 2014 at 6:24 PM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks to Khalil Jahshan of the Arab Center of Washington and Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution about the objective and depth of Israel’s ground operations into Gaza and Hamas’ reasons for resisting an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, as we stated, an hour after Margaret’s interview, it was announced that Israel was launching a ground invasion.

More now on the escalation of the conflict.

Khalil Jahshan is the executive director of the Arab Center of Washington. It’s a nonprofit organization that seeks to foster deeper understanding of Arab culture. And Natan Sachs is a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He focuses on Israeli foreign and domestic politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And welcome you both.

Natan Sachs, what can Israel accomplish with a ground invasion that it couldn’t accomplish by sending hundreds of missiles into Gaza.

NATAN SACHS, Brookings Institution: Well, the main objective right now is to go after these tunnels, the tunnels between Gaza Strip and Israel.

Egypt has acted very forcefully against the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza. But there are tunnels that go underneath the border to Israel and several attacks have come out of there, especially, most famously, an attack that abducted Gilad Shalit, a prisoner, an Israeli soldier. And then there was five years of his imprisonment, of trauma for Israel in the sense. They’re trying to go after these tunnels on the Gazan side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what is it — have they not been able to — help us understand, what is it about these tunnels, what is going on inside them or around them, that Israel can’t accomplish with missiles?

NATAN SACHS: Well, there is a lot that you can’t do from the air.

They know a bit about where they are. In fact, this operation a week-and-a-half ago began really with targeting of a specific tunnel. But then just today, they found another one. And they suspect, they expect that there are many more on the Gaza sound.

But going in with the ground troops, they hope that they’re able to uncover this and to stop them from the Gazan side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Khalil Jahshan, what does Hamas use the tunnels for?

KHALIL JAHSHAN, Arab Center of Washington: Basically, the tunnels are part and parcel of the military strategy of Hamas. They haven’t been really using them, like, daily.

I think there is a big exaggeration on the part of the Israelis, as we just heard Natan mention the incident that took place about six years ago. That was six years ago. We have had three wars in Gaza since then.

The Israelis know where these tunnels are. They can do like Egypt did. They can come in and block them from their side, if they need — they have that intelligence. They have that spatial intelligence. From outer space, they can tell where these tunnels are and how deep they are and where do they lead.

I think the Israelis basically decided to expand their strategy in Gaza by doing this incursion. I don’t think it’s an invasion of Gaza yet. I think the Israelis are using this gradual, if you will, escalation strategy. And they are using the tunnels as an excuse. And they’re not going to achieve their political objectives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you to back up. When you say you don’t think it’s an invasion yet, what are you saying is going on here?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: What is going on basically is a limited incursion, I think, into the border area between Gaza and Israel to destroy these tunnels.

These tunnels are only a few meters inside Gaza and a few meters inside Israel. I don’t think are you going to see Israeli troops yet, unless their defense of Gaza collapses or unless there is additional escalation.

But, right now, it seems to me that this incursion — incursion has a limited, if you will, geographic or spatial aspect to it. It’s not — you are not going to see Israeli troops going all the way to Rafah or all the way to Khan Yunis or all the way to Gaza City.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what you see going on, Natan Sachs?

NATAN SACHS: I worry that it can be more extensive than that.

There is a chance that the Israelis are going to try to go after some of the launch sites of these rockets in particular in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, and they also may try to sever the Gaza Strip to prevent Gaza or the Hamas from movement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this is in heavily occupied — an urban area; is that right?

NATAN SACHS: It is a tragedy of this war — and, really, we should all have a lot of sympathy for the people of Gaza and of Israel — but the tragedy of this war is that it is in a very populated area and it’s completely avoidable.

We should not be in this stage at all. The cease-fire three days ago that the Egyptians suggested should have taken hold. Hamas could have just held its fire, and we wouldn’t be fighting today at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you answer that?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Well, basically, you are correct in indicating, first of all, the limited space involved in this conflict.

I mean, Gaza, for all practical purposes, the whole Strip is, what, twice the area of Washington, D.C. And when you think of the strongest air force in the region, you are talking about fifth or sixth strongest country in the world militarily, when you think of the Israeli navy bombing from the other side. So you are talking about a very, very small piece of real estate, the bulk of which is desert, by the way.

The inhabited part is even smaller than D.C. So it doesn’t make sense to kind of seek a military solution to what essentially is a political problem. And that’s what Israel needs to focus on.

NATAN SACHS: In the longer-term, absolutely. There’s only a political solution to this, and the sides should get back to the table.

The problem is that Hamas is not involved in this. They’re not involved in a political solution. We should have sympathy for the people of Gaza — and I say this completely genuinely — and of Israel and the West Bank. But Hamas is not the people of Gaza. Hamas is the one that is bringing this war upon them.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: But, Natan, Hamas is not involved because you’re not allowing it to get involved. I mean, Hamas is being excluded from the process. Hamas is being excluded from any type of negotiations.

It’s being described as a terrorist organization. And it is laid under siege in Gaza. And this is the reason why the cease-fire, unfortunately, collapsed, because Hamas was excluded from the process.

This is the biggest sin committed by our secretary of state and by Mr. Netanyahu, by simply channeling this whole process to Egypt, which is not ready to proceed because of lack of relationship with the Palestinians. And Hamas is out of the picture. When the process started in Qatar, there was an earlier version of this…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you are describing a division on the Arab side here, which has made finding a solution much more difficult.

NATAN SACHS: Much harder.

In the past, you had Egypt to negotiate between the sides. And today the Egyptians and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, have very bad relations.

And even — even Egypt today came out with a very unusual declaration blaming Hamas for this round of fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where do you see this headed, Khalil Jahshan ,because people are going to continue to ask, why isn’t Hamas prepared to accept a long — a truce?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: In the long future, long-term, I can see this basically staying this way.

Every couple of years, we’re going to have another, you know, conflict between some Palestinians, whether Hamas or somebody else, in the future, and the state of Israel, unless there is peace. So, in the future, long-term, I would say peace is the answer. Without solving the Palestinian problem, Israel will continue to have these wars. Some in Israel feel that this is affordable. I don’t think so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in the meantime, right now, we have a hot war that has resumed?

NATAN SACHS: The immediate need is simply for a cease-fire.

And that’s why the Egyptian attempt was so important. That is why I do see so much blame in Hamas. In the longer-term, I agree completely with Khalil. The only option is a peace process, a genuine peace process that tries to reach a two-state solution, despite all the difficulties that we have seen.

But in the immediate sense, what we’re seeing right now, the tragedy that we’re seeing right now is preventable and needs to stop.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Natan Sachs, Khalil Jahshan, we thank you both.

NATAN SACHS: Thank you very much.