Palestinian security forces stand guard at the entrance of Rafah border crossing with Egypt on August 11, 2020. Photo: AFP / NurPhoto / Majdi Fathi

With over 243 Palestinians and 12 Israelis killed in 11 days of recent fighting, an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on May 21 came as a great relief to many around the region.

Yet, as the residents of Gaza picked through the remains of hundreds of bomb-blasted homes – while more than half of Gaza’s two million inhabitants now face life without access to clean water or regular power – it seems unlikely that their suffering will end any time soon.

Indeed, efforts to rebuild while finding a lasting political solution remain hamstrung by local and international disputes, leaving the key drivers of the recent clashes very much still alive.

“No one is dealing with the initial triggers of the conflict,” Tahani Mustafa, the International Crisis Group’s analyst in the Palestinian West Bank, told Asia Times. “This happens every time, too – the triggers are not dealt with, just repressed.”

Those triggers range from the immediate – such as the May 7 storming of the sacred Al Aqsa mosque by Israeli riot police – to the much longer-term, with many around the Arab world now revisiting a sense of injustice that has lingered over decades.

“There is a sense that the Palestinian cause is something that we’ve all been raised to support,” says Egyptian analyst Hafsa Halawa, a Cairo-based non-resident scholar with the Middle East Institute. “We may debate and argue about it, but when the moment comes, everyone is right there.”

At the same time, too, Israel’s strategy also avoids addressing any fundamental issues.

Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli warplanes target the Palestinian enclave on May 17, 2021. Photo: AFP / Anas Baba

“Israel had one objective in the recent conflict,” Jean-Loup Samaan, a research affiliate with the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, told Asia Times. “That was to deplete Hamas’ capabilities, without even pretending it was going to erase Hamas from Gaza. So it has a strategy without end – just postponing the next conflict.”

In these circumstances, the current shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is widely seen with a great degree of skepticism. “The US has no plan to address the issues,” says Mustafa, “and the European Union has no idea what to do next.”

Divided houses

While the Palestinian cause may unify many, there are also major divisions within the Palestinian camp.

These were highlighted by the recent clashes, which saw the increasing marginalization of the Palestinian Authority (PA) of President Mahmoud Abbas. This runs the West Bank and is recognized by the US and EU as the chief interlocutor for the Palestinians.

While the PA’s loss of influence goes back many years, this accelerated in April when Abbas canceled scheduled Palestinian elections – a move that angered many Palestinians across the political spectrum.

This marginalization then continued when the recent fighting broke out.

As the clashes spread, Abbas’ PA – and his Fatah faction of the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization – took a back seat to the Islamist Hamas, which runs Gaza.

The PA and Fatah also lost ground to an extensive network of grassroots Palestinian activists, who organized protests and strikes across the Palestinian territories and amongst Palestinians living in Israel.

In sum, “The PA and Fatah have now effectively lost control,” says Mustafa, “and are responding by arresting protest organizers and launching smear campaigns against other Palestinian factions and activists.”

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas gives a joint statement with the US secretary of state, on May 25, 2021 at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Photo: AFP / Alex Brandon

These actions, however, “have largely failed,” Mustafa adds, triggering protests against the PA and Fatah.

Yet, despite all this, the PA continues to enjoy the support of the US and EU, which designate Hamas as a “terrorist” group and therefore will not work with them.

Indeed, Blinken’s recent offers of aid to rebuild Gaza and elsewhere have explicitly ruled out any cooperation with Hamas.

In a May 26 statement, Blinken said that some US$360 million of US aid “will be administered in a way that benefits the Palestinian people – not Hamas, which has only brought misery and despair to Gaza.”

As a result, the US and EU “are now working with an effectively defunct institution” in the PA, says Mustafa.

Regional opportunities

This has, however, left some major opportunities for other states to take the initiative.

Chief amongst these in the recent conflict were Egypt and Qatar.

“Egypt has changed its diplomatic visibility on the Palestinian issue recently, engaging more and publicizing its relations with both Hamas and Israel,” says Halawa.

Indeed, it was Cairo that brokered the eventual ceasefire, with Blinken describing Egypt’s role as “critical” in the recent conflict when he visited Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on May 26.

The shadow of a ceremonial guard is seen as Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi looks on during a ceremony to sign military contracts at the presidential palace in the Egyptian capital Cairo on October 10, 2015. Photo: AFP / Khaled Desouki

This may work out in terms of Washington dropping its earlier criticisms of al-Sisi’s regime on human rights grounds as “Egypt has taken the opportunity to prove its utility as a regional security partner,” adds Halawa.

For Cairo, of course, Gaza is a significant security concern, as it borders Egypt’s troubled Sinai province. Ensuring that Hamas polices this frontier has been key for Cairo in recent years, as it fights Islamist militants based in Sinai.

This has meant al-Sisi has had to deal with the Hamas leadership, even though they are ideologically opposed, with Hamas an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the pan-Islamic group that al-Sisi overthrew in Egypt back in 2013.

“There is a renewed pragmatism in Arab alliances these days,” adds Halawa.

At the same time, al-Sisi’s activism on the Palestinian issue brings him more into line with popular, pro-Palestinian sentiment in Egypt, which has often struggled with Egypt’s recognition of Israel back in the 1970s, resulting in an ongoing – if largely moribund – peace agreement.

Meanwhile, Qatar, which sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood and has long been Hamas’ main financial backer, was also in a strong position to influence events and help pull together the ceasefire.

The Arab states that were less involved included those which had signed the Abraham Accords – recognizing Israel – during 2020 and 2021.

These were led by the UAE, which came in for much online criticism during the clashes. Yet, “For all that outrage,” says Mustafa, “Palestine still relies on aid from countries like the UAE.”

Indeed, “The Abraham Accords didn’t really come into the equation,” says Samaan.

Ways ahead

While the conflict has seen the return of Egypt as a major mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and Blinken continues shuttle diplomacy around the region – the lack of an overall solution remains evident.

For Hamas, “My sense is that this conflict showed that if you want to stand up to Israel, you have to invest in missiles, not suicide bombs,” says Samaan.

Members of Al-Qassam brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, march in Gaza in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Emmanuel Dunand

“While for the PA, I’m really not sure how much longer they can sustain their situation. After canceling the election, Abbas has been president without being elected for 16 years now.”

Israel also seems likely to continue its policy of “mowing the grass” – as it was described by Efraim Inbar, from the Jerusalem Institute of Strategic Studies, in a Jerusalem Post article back in 2014.

“I don’t see any desire on the Israeli side to take hold of what just happened in order to open a discussion of the issues,” Samaan adds.

For the people of Gaza and elsewhere then, this will very likely not be the only time they have to rebuild their shattered lives and homes. Indeed, they may have already had to do so several times before.