Conflict & Justice

Israel presses ahead with ground attack on Gaza Strip

gaza strip.jpg

Israeli soldiers travel atop tanks outside the Gaza Strip July 18, 2014. Israel stepped up its land offensive in Gaza with artillery, tanks and gunboats on Friday and declared it could "significantly widen" an operation Palestinian officials said was killing ever greater numbers of civilians.


Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

The Israeli Defense Forces are wrapping up the first day of their ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, targeting a series of tunnels that reach from the Hamas-controlled territory into southern Israel.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

The ground offensive began just a few days after Hamas rejected a peace deal proposed by Egypt. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told the Associated Press that Hamas is isolated, after rejecting a deal sponsored by the Arab League and the United Nations.

"That same proposal was endorsed by the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas," he said. 

Egypt has long played a leading role in the Middle East peace process, but in the wake of the Arab Spring and the counterrevolution last summer, Egyptian leaders seem somewhat distracted by their own, internal problems.

Daniel Kurtzer — former US ambassador to Egypt under President Bill Clinton and ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush — said Hamas is finding itself with fewer and fewer friends, perhaps Qater and Turkey only, with Egypt, traditionally a major supporter, moving closer to Israel.

"In fact, [Egypt] coordinated the cease-fire proposal earlier this week with the Israelis more so than with Hamas," Kurtzer said. "The Israelis are gaining something in terms of public affairs, the question is whether they've established conditions in which they can decided when to end this conflict."

The primary stated goal of the invasion was to eliminate the tunnels that were discovered recently. But Israel's motivations run deeper.

"The second goal, which is harder to define, is to degrade Hamas's military capabilities and 'restore calm,'" he said.

There is no metric for "restoring calm" though, Kurtzer pointed out, saying that the Israelis woulf be using their own discretion to make that determination. In the end, Kurtzer said, the situation in the Gaza Strip may ultimately empower Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

"It appears that both the Israelis and Egyptians are trying to do that, by negotiating the cease-fire conditions through [Abbas]," Kurtzer said. "If, in fact, he can be seen as producing that cease-fire, his fortunes will rise as Hamas's fortunes deteriorate. After all, the real victims here are the people in Gaza who are seeing their lives destroyed and their infrastructure destroyed. The question is whether or not they will continue to provide support for Hamas, or return it to the Palestinian Authority."

Though some would like to forge a new way forward without Hamas or Abbas, Kurtzer said that's unlikely. 

"The reality is, Abbas is probably the best we have and that we're going to get for some time to come," he added. "He has been a constant opponent of violence to achieve Palestinian ends, and he's been a constant supporter of peace. There aren't many in the leadership ranks of Palestinian society who can claim both of those. I think holding out for someone else is a prescription for failure." 

Though Abbas could provide a way forward for the Palestinian people, Kurtzer said he'll be unable to unless Israel agrees to certain concessions, like freezing settlement activity, releasing prisoners, or easing restrictions in the West Bank. 

"Abbas runs an Authority that is under occupation, and derives all of its ability to produce things for its population from its relationship with Israel," said Kurtzer. "The question after the fighting ends here, and hopefully Abbas is empowered a bit by negotiating a cease-fire, is whether or not Israel will allow a relaunched peace process in which Abbas can begin to deliver some positives to the population."

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, where you're invited to become part of the American conversation.