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Key rivals capable of brokering ceasefire

BY the time you read this there may be a ceasefire in Gaza.

Then again the airstrikes, shelling and rocket attacks may be as intensive as ever. Such has been the contradictory and speculatory nature of reports that a truce deal is in the offing between Palestinians and Israelis in this fiercely contested coastal strip of land.

At the time of writing, Gazans were rushing to shops and banks, making the most of a five-hour 'humanitarian' ceasefire while reports suggested Israeli negotiators had approved talks in Cairo and were waiting on the final decision of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet as to whether a permanent truce would begin today.

Should a ceasefire take hold in the hours and days ahead, and my hunch is that it will, then any analysis column like this is a good place to examine how such a deal might be brokered and by whom.

Much has been made lately about Egypt's role as mediator during this round of Gaza hostilities. But word on the ground is that Hamas is not best disposed towards the current Cairo regime for a raft of reasons.

To begin with it is worth remembering it was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi's military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that in turn pressurised Hamas, for whom the Brotherhood were key benefactors and supporters.

As part of this punitive campaign the Egyptian authorities targeted the crucial smuggling tunnels that Hamas has used to bring supplies into Gaza from Sinai. Egypt too has been reluctant to open the vital Rafah crossing point that links the two territories.

Hamas leaders are also said to have been angered by the fact that Egypt did not communicate directly with them. Instead, Cairo, in talks with Israel, chose to work through the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by Hamas's Palestinian political rivals, Fatah.

Outraged at the pre-conditions Egypt has allegedly proposed without consulting them, Hamas's frustration was summed up the other day by one official who, when asked by journalists to comment on reports that Egypt had brokered a ceasefire, caustically remarked the first he had heard of it was from the media itself.

All this of course is not to say that Hamas has not had its men in Cairo doing the diplomatic rounds, even if their lurking perception is of President al Sisi's regime being too close to Israel for comfort.

Given this Hamas suspicion of Egyptian motives, other players have been busy usurping Cairo's role and increasing their own leverage in the region by presenting themselves as the preferred conduit in any serious negotiations between Hamas, Israel and the US.

Enter Qatar, that Middle Eastern country that these days carries a massive amount of diplomatic and geopolitical clout despite its comparative obscurity in most people's eyes.

Qatar is regarded by most Middle East watchers as a small but hugely influential country. One that has a remarkable ability to run with the Islamist hare and hunt with the Western hounds. All the indications are that the Qatari leadership has consistently been in consultations with Hamas over a fresh ceasefire proposal.

Turkey has also been keen to get in on the act as a mediator, but Israel remains on uneasy diplomatic terms with Ankara matched only by its wariness of Hamas's growing ties to Qatar.

Increasingly important as Qatar and Turkey are, Egypt however remains the only player among the three that has a direct hand in enforcing the terms of any ceasefire agreement when it comes to Sinai security, a crucial consideration for hostilities on the ground.

If anything, it is this proliferation of mediators and their often conflicting or contradictory long term objectives that many analysts say have delayed efforts to de-escalate tensions in Gaza

Yesterday's break in 10 days of fighting was requested by the UN to allow residents of Gaza to gather supplies and repair damage to infrastructure such as water mains and power. Gaza health officials say at least 224 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed. In Israel, one civilian has been killed by fire from Gaza.

Just a few weeks ago in this column I outlined why I thought Hamas was vulnerable at this particular time and how the Israeli military would be keen to exploit that weakness. After Israel's latest onslaught, some military and intelligence analysts are already pointing to the fact that, far from seriously damaging Hamas, its leadership largely remains intact.

Another indication of the group's resilience, they say, is that it appears far from desperate to negotiate a ceasefire with the Israelis.

According to one account, on July 9, a senior Arab diplomat in Amman, Jordan, passed on a report from one of his Egyptian colleagues: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi had been in touch with the Hamas leadership, he said, offering to mediate the conflict.

"Hamas turned him down," the diplomat reported. "They said, 'If Israel wants to come, let them come.'" Since then the Israeli military juggernaut has come and many Gazans have paid the ultimate price. For now, there is some respite. The hope must be that, through negotiations and diplomacy, this calm can be sustained.

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