The latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza is now two weeks old, with nearly 600 Palestinians and 29 Israelis – all but two of them active duty soldiers - dead. A ceasefire deal proposed by Egypt last week collapsed after Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, said they had not been consulted. Since then, Israel has rapidly expanded its operations, with a ground invasion leading to over 100,000 people fleeing their homes.
Fresh attempts are under way to negotiate a settlement to the crisis - but what are the key points of dispute? And can there be any hope of a longer-term peace for both sides?
What does Hamas want?
Hamas has stated that its aim is to ease the restrictions on entry of goods and freedom of movement in and out of the densely populated Gaza Strip. In a recent interview, the group’s political leader Khaled Meshaal said it would only accept a ceasefire that included long-term commitments to improve the “rights of the Palestinian people”.
Among these goals are the lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the enclave, which currently severely restrict imports of vital goods including fuel, food and building materials.
Salman Sheikh, director of the Brookings Institution in Qatar, says Hamas is looking to use the conflict to achieve medium-term goals.
“They don’t just want a pause - that’s why the Egyptian initial [ceasefire] effort didn’t work - they want an agreement that would allow for an opening of the border and the release of those arrested by Israel.”
In more practical terms, Hamas - as the vastly inferior military force - is also looking to survive the Israeli assault without being crippled and will see that as a victory to some degree.
“As an insurgency, you typically define success as outlasting the other side. This is typical to show that the conventional authority is not capable of providing security for the public,” said Firas Abi Ali, Middle East forecaster at the IHS research institute.
What does Israel want?
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the ground invasion on the evening of 17 July, he stressed that the purpose was to destroy Hamas’s military capacity, including its network of underground tunnels. He added that his aim was to “restore quiet and safety to Israelis for a long time to come, while significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.”
Abi Ali pointed out that according to Israeli figures, 87 rockets were fired into Israel on 20 July - down from a daily average of around 140 in the previous two weeks. He added that while it marked an improvement, the number was still “probably too high for the Israelis - they probably need to bring [the number] down significantly in their assessment.”
Yet Netanyahu has steered clear of stating grand goals of destroying Hamas once and for all. Daniel Levy, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council for Foreign Relations and a former adviser to the Israeli government, said he thinks Israel has learned from the 2006 war with the heavily armed Lebanese political party Hezbollah - where promises to destroy the group proved unrealistic. “He hasn’t talked about purging all Hamas. He has just talked about [attacking] their rocket capacity, launch sites and tunnels.”
Ali agreed with this assessment, saying that Netanyahu had been careful to present the attacks as something necessary every few years. Many on the right of Israeli politics have referred to the attacks as “mowing the grass”.
“The narrative the Israelis are trying to present is that this type of limited conflict against Gaza and other areas where militant groups may take hold is something they have to regularly engage in to keep the capability of these groups in check,” Ali said. “They haven’t got a permanent solution so regular military conflict becomes a fact of life.”
Who is negotiating?
All European Union (EU) states have a policy of refusing contact with Hamas, thus making it almost impossible for them to meet directly with the party’s political leadership - including its Qatar-based leader Meshaal.
Norway, which is not part of the EU, has no such pact and the country’s foreign minister, Borg Brende, has been shuttling between Israel, Egypt and Qatar seeking to mediate an agreement.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has been to Doha, while Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has also held meetings with Meshaal.
The USA, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, has also been involved in negotiations - though it, too, refuses to meet Hamas directly. On 21 July, Kerry said he was working towards a ceasefire as well as a “discussion about the underlying issues”.
The Brookings Institution’s Sheikh said he was concerned that the multiple mediators had not “joined up” as yet. “That’s what Ban Ki-moon is trying to do, to provide a glue on these matters.”
The chaotic nature of the negotiations contrasts with the last time Israel bombed Gaza in November 2012. At that time, the then Muslim Brotherhood-led Egyptian government was strongly supportive of Hamas - with numerous top leaders visiting the enclave while also negotiating with Israel on Hamas’ behalf. Diplomatic efforts started immediately and the violence only lasted eight days, with both the Egyptians and the Israelis agreeing to a ceasefire in which they promised to significantly ease restrictions on Gaza.
Since then, however, a military-backed ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood government has brought to power Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former Egyptian military general who is hostile to Hamas. Restrictions on the enclave have returned to levels similar to those before 2012.
Levy said Hamas’ lack of a strong ally had led to the chaos of last week’s ceasefire attempts - when the party had not been consulted by Egypt and Israel before the deal was offered.
“If we are going to get a successful ceasefire, the difference will be that Hamas will have to be part of the ceasefire rather than having a ceasefire dictated to it,” he said.
What could a ceasefire deal look like?
There are a number of ways in which the crisis could be stopped, ranging from a short-term ceasefire to a more complete truce. The general consensus from analysts IRIN spoke to was that neither side was currently willing to make a long-term pact and the most likely outcome is a ceasing of violence without tackling the underlying causes of the conflict.
Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said that would make a similar flare-up in the future all but inevitable.
“Unless the situation changes in Gaza to allow people to live their own lives, then the politics inside it are not going to change.”
He added that the failure of Egypt and Israel to abide by the terms of the November 2012 deal - in which the countries promised to ease the blockade on Gaza in exchange for Hamas preventing all rocket fire from Gaza - had made Hamas less willing to negotiate.
“[They] feel they accepted a ceasefire in November 2012 which has cost them politically as they have had to prevent rocket fire in Gaza without having been able to improve Gaza’s conditions and lift the siege to the extent that was agreed by Egypt and Israel.” As such, he said, Hamas will not make an agreement without guarantees.
Sheikh added that key negotiations would have to focus on a mechanism for opening up the borders to Gaza at the same time as “guaranteeing security on the Israeli side”.
How long will it continue?
Neither side, analysts agreed, is either prepared for or seeking a prolonged conflict. Israeli has called up nearly 50,000 reservists, while international pressure on it has been growing due to the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza.
“Economically, Israel can’t sustain an operation for months - in terms of maintaining this number of reservists under arms, the actual cost of the military operation and the cost resulting from paralysing economic activity in southern Israel,” IHS’s Ali said. “The Israelis can’t afford a long war. Throughout history they have looked for fast, spectacular wars rather than long engagements.”
The flurry of diplomatic activity in recent days implies that there is increased international pressure to reach a deal, yet the faltering nature of the negotiations raises the spectre of the war dragging on. Levy pointed out that while Netanyahu’s strategy was clearly for a relatively brief engagement, the killing of at least 27 Israeli soldiers in recent days was likely to increase pressure for a further expansion of operations.
Israel occupied Gaza for 38 years until 2005 when it withdrew its forces but later launched a blockade after Hamas was elected in 2006. “Every day that goes by without a ceasefire, there is [more danger of escalation],” Levy said. “We are still not in the occupation scenario but if it carries on for many more days we could be talking about that.”
Sheikh added that the knife-edge nature of the negotiations meant the coming days were vital. “This is a crucial time - things are reaching a critical stage. We could get an announcement of a humanitarian ceasefire or we could get a complete collapse [of negotiations]. With what happened in recent days - the Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers killed - the danger is that the conflict takes on a dynamic of its own.”