(Reuters) – A week after the guns fell silent in the Gaza war, Israel and the Palestinians seem to have little appetite or incentive for a return to U.S.-sponsored peace and statehood talks that collapsed five months ago.
With conflicts raging in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria – and the future of the Gaza Strip largely uncharted by a broadbrush Egyptian-mediated ceasefire deal – world powers also are not rushing headlong into the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
The parties themselves, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bickering governing coalition and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, are on a collision course over threatened Palestinian unilateral moves toward statehood and exploration of war crimes prosecution against Israel in the absence of direct talks.
Israel drew Palestinian and international criticism on Sunday by announcing a major appropriation of occupied land in the West Bank, the most significant such move in 30 years.
As head of a governing coalition divided over trading territory for peace, Netanyahu is now speaking, in amorphous terms, of an alternative route towards ending decades of conflict – a “new horizon” – or possible regional alliance with moderate Arab countries alarmed, like Israel, by radical Islam.
Closer to home and with the Gaza situation still in flux, there is nothing on the immediate horizon as far as peacemaking with Abbas is concerned, Israeli government sources said.
Under the Egyptian-brokered truce agreement, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to address complex issues such as Hamas’s demands for a Gaza seaport and the release of Palestinian prisoners via indirect talks starting within a month.
With the start of those negotiations still up in the air, Netanyahu wants to see whether Abbas takes over responsibility from Hamas for administering Gaza’s borders and that measures are taken to prevent the group from smuggling in weaponry.
Netanyahu, who appears to be weathering an approval rating plunge after the Gaza war ended without a clear victor, took a swipe at Abbas last week, summing up a conflict which the Palestinian leader persistently tried to bring to an end.
“Abu Mazen has to choose which side he is on,” Netanyahu told a news conference, using Abbas’s nickname.
The comment harked back to Israel’s decision in April to cut off peace talks with Abbas after he clinched a unity deal with Hamas, a bitter rival that had seized the Gaza Strip from his Fatah forces in 2007.
Those negotiations, on creating a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, were already going nowhere, with Palestinians pointing to expanding Israeli settlement on land they claim as their own and balking at Israel’s demand to recognize it as the Jewish homeland.
In an editorial laden with scepticism, Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper questioned whether “as in the past” Netanyahu’s remarks on casting a regional peace net, “are only empty slogans”.
Some of his cabinet ministers are also pressing Netanyahu to get moving on a wider track.
“We cannot and will not allow a situation whereby this ceasefire is the beginning of the countdown to the next round of fire. If we don’t take the diplomatic initiative, this is exactly what will happen,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid said.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator in now-dormant talks with the Palestinians, said: “(Netanyahu) has to be put to the test on this.”
Livni, speaking on Israel Radio, said Israel should “create a front with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – those countries threatened by all of those beheaders running around the region”.
But, she said, “they can cooperate with us only if there is a basic minimum of a peace process – dialogue with the moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority”.
In the past, Netanyahu has expressed little interest in embracing a regional peace plan, such as the 2002 Arab initiative that offered normalized ties with Israel if it withdrew fully from territory captured in a 1967 war.
But last year, he signaled in a speech to parliament a readiness to consider the proposal, raised at an Arab League summit 12 years ago, as long as it did not contain “edicts”.
Any land-for-peace moves would elicit even more dissent from right-wingers in his government who have been vocal over Netanyahu’s reluctance to heed their calls during the Gaza war for a full-scale invasion to crush Hamas.
For now, he appears to be in little danger of seeing his political partnerships unravel.
About a month into the war, 77 percent of Israelis surveyed in a Haaretz-Dialog poll described Netanyahu’s performance during the conflict as either good or excellent. That figure dropped to around 50 percent after the ceasefire was announced.
But the snap poll taken a day after the truce went into effect showed that despite his flagging popularity, he continued to top, by a wide margin, the list of politicians whom Israelis believed were most suited to lead them as prime minister.
Israel and Hamas said they accepted an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire plan to end a seven-week conflict in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and about 70 Israelis.
The cease-fire, announced in a statement by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, started at 7 p.m. local time yesterday and was hailed from mosque loudspeakers in Gaza City as thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets. Rifle-toting militants fired in the air, cheering, “Long live Hamas!”
Under the deal, Gaza’s border crossings with Israel are being opened to let in reconstruction materials and foreign aid, while fishing zones off the coast have been extended, Egypt said. The two sides will resume indirect talks on “other issues” in the coming month, it said.
“We’ve come to an arrangement,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Channel 2 television, confirming that Prime MinisterBenjamin Netanyahu accepted the cease-fire. “We didn’t win in a knock-out,” he said.
Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, had demanded an end to the blockade on Gaza initiated in 2006 after the group won Palestinian elections. Israel wants the transit points supervised by a third party to prevent arms smuggling. It has called for the disarming of Hamas and other militants groups, which were also involved in the truce talks.
While the cease-fire halts the violence, it may weaken Netanyahu politically because the war was “too long and too costly,” said Shlomo Brom, a retired general and senior fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. Hamas will probably benefit because “they had been pretty much dismissed before the fighting and now they’re a player again.”
Israel’s benchmark TA-25 Index (TA-25) for stocks rose 0.4 percent in Tel Aviv yesterday. Several previous Egyptian-brokered cease-fire agreements have collapsed since violence between Israel and Hamas escalated last month.
As Gazans thronged main streets covered in rubble from Israeli air strikes, Hamas leaders including Mahmoud Zahar appeared publicly for the first time since going into hiding when the fighting began in July.
“This is a great victory for the Palestinian people,” said Nabila Salem, a mother of six children, who went into the street to celebrate. “I know the destruction was huge and the pain is difficult, but we’ve gotten used to pain, and it’s the only way to win.”
Shortly before the agreement went into effect, attacks from both sides intensified. Three Palestinians were killed in an Israeli airstrike at about 6 p.m. local time yesterday, the Gaza health ministry said. Two Israelis were killed by a mortar attack, according to the army, which said rockets also landed in open areas near Tel Aviv. Israel, the U.S. and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
Hundreds of the Palestinians killed during 50 days of fighting were women and children, according to Gaza officials. About 70 Israelis, almost all of them soldiers, were killed.
The conflict also has hurt the Israeli economy, prompting the central bank to cut its benchmark interest rate this week for the second consecutive month, to a record 0.25 percent.
Egypt, which has been mediating the talks, has joined Israel in imposing a blockade on Gaza. The Egyptian statement didn’t say whether that would be eased.
The U.S. strongly supports the cease-fire and urges “all parties to fully and completely comply with its terms,” Secretary of State John Kerry, who was involved in earlier attempts to broker a truce, said in an e-mailed statement. He said the U.S. is “prepared to work with our international partners on a major reconstruction initiative” in Gaza.
State media reports out of Tehran on Sunday said that the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard had shot down an Israeli drone near the Natanz uranium enrichment site, home to Iran’s nuclear program.
The downed aircraft was reportedly a stealth long-range surveillance drone designed to avoid radar detection.
The Iranian defense minister, brigadier general Hossein Dehghan, was quoted in the official Islamic Republic News Agency saying that shooting down the Israeli drone at Natanz, where an estimated 16,000 centrifuges are located, was proof that the country would offer a “crushing response” to any aggression.
The Israeli military, following usual protocol, did not comment on the reports.
If Iran can access the unmanned aerial vehicle’s sensors, which are highly sophisticated and crucial for determining mission accuracy, it’s possible that they will be able to re-engineer a model of their own with long-range capabilities that could conduct missions over Israel.
In recent years, Iran has reported that it shot down other foreign drones over its airspace, including an American-made RQ-170 Sentinel unarmed surveillance drone in 2011.
At the time, the US denied the reports, but it later said that a CIA drone had not been shot down but crashed due to “technical malfunction” over Iranian airspace. In an official ceremony in May, Iran displayed a copy of the aircraft, manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
In a press conference today, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of the country’s volunteer Basij forces, said that the Iranian armed forces have additionally seized a “large number” of foreign spy drones in recent years but would not specify where they had come from, according to local reports.
Drones have become an especially important component of Tehran’s military arsenal in recent years. Last November, Iran unveiled its first predator drone, the Shahed 129, which was largely based on an Israeli Elbit Hermes 450 model. The drone shot down yesterday is believed to have also been an Hermes.
David Cenciotti, the founder of the blog The Aviationist, tells Quartz that Iran has been quite adept at implementing the technologies captured from these downed drones into manufacturing their own UAVs. The country, he says, now has a small but fairly robust domestic drone program.
“With access to foreign technology restricted by a long-lasting embargo, Iran has developed several domestic drones,” said Cenciotti. “Some of them are similar to the Israeli model Hermes 450 model. Others are based on US models captured after they were shot down or crash landed during spy missions over Iranian airspace.”
Iran’s domestic drone industry, Cenciotti explains, now exports to its allies. Iranian-made UAVs have been spotted in Syria, Venezuela and in the Gaza Strip, where they have been operated by Hamas.
Iran alleges an Israeli drone was trying to spy on the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards claimed on Sunday they had downed an Israeli drone that was allegedly trying to spy on a major nuclear site.
A statement by the guards said the drone was shot down with a ground-to-air missile before the unmanned aerial vehicle could “penetrate the off-limits nuclear space of Natanz”, the country’s main nuclear enrichment facility, located 300km south of Tehran.
The statement did not say when the incident took place and the guards have not published any images of the drone, which was described as “of the stealth, radar-evasive type”.
“This evil move further illustrated the adventurist manner of the Zionist regime and added another black page to this warmongering and fake regime’s records which are full of crimes and viciousness,” the statement said. “The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps along with other armed forces of the Islamic Republic are fully and firmly prepared to defend the nation and the Islamic lands of Iran while reserving their right to respond and retaliate.”
Israel’s government, which is deeply sceptical of the interim agreement between Tehran and world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear programme, has in the past accused Tehran of deceiving the international community and defying the UN in regard to its nuclear-related activities, including in its enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow. The latter is an underground nuclear site which is said to be immune from any military aggression.
An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on what she called “foreign reports”.
Israeli military experts were surprised by the report because Israel does its visual surveillance of Iranian nuclear facilities via satellite and also because the country’s military establishment is currently primarily focused on the war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“A drone operation over Iran doesn’t happen just like that,” said Yiftah Shapir, director of the project on military balance at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “I don’t see anyone in the Israeli defence establishment paying attention to anything other than Gaza – it hardly makes any sense.”
The downing of drones is not unprecedented in Iran. The guards captured a US Lockheed Martin Sentinel RQ-170 drone in 2011 and then claimed to have determined how it functioned, reverse-engineered it and showcased a functioning copy.
Hamas officials said on Wednesday that Israel’s military had killed the wife and child of Mohammed Deif, commander of the Islamist group’s al-Qassam military wing, in a bombing raid on a family house as fighting in the Gaza Strip resumed overnight.
Residents of the area north of Gaza City reported hearing five air strikes in the area on Tuesday evening on a house there, after rockets fired from Gaza caused Israel to resume its bombing campaign.
On Wednesday, Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy chief of Hamas’s political bureau, confirmed that Mr Deif’s wife and son were killed in a bombing raid on Tuesday evening.
The Palestinian Maan news agency said the attack that killed his family members happened at the home of the al-Dalou family in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood of north Gaza, which it said had been hit by five Israel missiles.
A third unidentified person was reported killed in the bombing, but there was no word of the whereabouts of Mr Deif, who has survived five past Israeli assassination attempts, most recently in 2006.
Israel accuses Mr Deif of involvement in bombing attacks that have killed dozens of people since 2006.
Gaza ministry of health officials said that 11 Palestinians had been killed overnight and 109 injured as Israel’s military began bombing. The dead reportedly included seven members of a family killed in an air strike in Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip.
The war has killed 2,028 and injured 10,302 Palestinians to date, Gaza health officials said on Wednesday. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers have died in combat, and three civilians have been killed.
A 24-hour ceasefire extension, meant to allow talks in Cairo on ending the war to continue, broke down on Tuesday afternoon after militants fired three rockets into southern Israel, amid signs the talks had hit insurmountable obstacles.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and Moshe Ya’alon, defence minister, ordered the Israel Defence Forces to bomb targets in Gaza in retaliation. The IDF said it had attacked about 60 targets in Gaza, which it described as “terror sites”, on Tuesday, apparently including the al-Dalou family home.
Gaza militants fired a barrage of rockets into Israel in response, causing sirens to sound in southern and central Israel, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the Iron Dome anti-missile system to deploy.
Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades said in response to the attack on Mr Deif’s family that “Israel, in this treacherous action, opened the gates of hell upon itself and it will pay a heavy price”.
The resumption of full-blown fighting ends a diplomatic interlude that began early this month, when Israel withdrew most of its ground troops from Gaza after a near month-long campaign to destroy Hamas tunnels and rocket launch sites.
In the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas in Cairo, Egypt tried to broker a truce that would see both sides cease hostilities and Israel relax its economic stranglehold on Gaza’s borders, which it imposed in 2007 after the militant group took power.
Leaks from the talks suggested that Israel was unprepared to accede to many of the Palestinians’ demands, including for the establishment of an airport and seaport in Gaza.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, was due to travel to Qatar, one of Hamas’s principal foreign allies, to meet the exiled leader of the Islamist movement, Khaled Meshaal, and the Gulf state’s emir.
In Israel, both ruling and opposition politicians are calling on Mr Netanyahu to use more force in Gaza against Hamas. “It is high time that we put an end to Hamas,” Danny Danon, a member of the prime minister’s rightwing Likud, who Mr Netanyahu sacked as deputy defence minister last month, said on Wednesday. “The failed policy of ‘quiet will be met with quiet’ has achieved nothing but humiliation for Israel.”
Nachman Shai, a member of the centre-left Labour party, said on Tuesday evening after the fighting resumed and Israel withdrew its negotiating team from Cairo that Mr Netanyahu should end the negotiations.
“No more talking – shoot,” Mr Shai said in remarks quoted by the Jerusalem Post newspaper on Wednesday. “That is the only language Hamas understands.”
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