"Immediate cease fire and new policy options to include Gaza in regional negotiations are needed"

Dr. René Wildangel is head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's office for Palestine and Jordan

November 21, 2012
René Wildangel/Sandra Schulz
Sandra Schulz: In Ramallah in the West Bank we talk to René Wildangel, the head of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s office there. Hello, Mr. Wildangel.

René Wildangel
: Hello, Ms. Schulz.

Mr. Wildangel, is a ground invasion imminent?

Well, this is the concern here in the West Bank as well. The facts were just mentioned (in the programme), a huge number of reservists have been drafted who are now deployed at the border to Gaza. Of course, everybody here hopes that there will be a ceasefire agreement soon. A ground invasion can be expected to repeat what we saw in 2008, an absolutely disastrous war, which cost the lives of more than 1300 people on the Palestinian side, and several dozen people on the Israeli side. There are concerns that the situation might escalate much further than it has already been the case in the past four days.

But would it really be a repetition of 2008? Is the situation after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt not a totally different one?

On the one hand yes, the situation is of course completely different; on the other hand the new Egyptian President Mursi is also caught between two stools. He gets very clear signals from the United States not to touch the peace treaty with Israel, and at the moment the US is a key partner for Egypt. Egypt is still in a state of transformation and dependent on economic aid from the United States. At the same time, there is of course great pressure from the streets, in Egypt as well as throughout the Arab world. After the revolution the people expect Egypt to behave in a different way and there are also indicators in this regard: the Egyptian ambassador in Israel has been removed, a visit of the Egyptian Prime Minister Kandil took place yesterday, and today the Tunisian Foreign Minister was in Gaza. But initially these are only symbolic policies. I believe massive steps that could affect the relationship with the US and other big, important stakeholders cannot be expected for now.

You just mentioned the visit of the Egyptian Prime Minister Kandil yesterday – he announced very clearly his support for Hamas. Can Egypt act as a mediator to reach a ceasefire?

I think that Egypt is playing a central role and it is in contact with the US. But I think that there is a need for more emphasis from all sides, including the EU, in order to point out: This is a very dangerous step for both sides. For the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza, 1.7 million people who, as you just described, already experience the whole situation with nightmarish fear and worry literally every day about their lives. But also from the Israeli and from a strategic perspective, the situation would be very dangerous. A ground offensive will bring many deaths on both sides, but it will not solve any of the real problems. In general, the Gaza Strip has been forgotten after 2008/2009. The siege on Gaza was accelerated, a tunnel economy developed, and it has been acted as if the underlying problems in Gaza just do not exist. But these can only be solved with diplomacy. If there is a new round of war, the result will be many deaths, but none of the problems in the region is solved. If it hopefully comes to a truce, efforts have to be concentrated on this point. Egypt will play a central role in finally addressing these diplomatic issues. In this regard Egypt's close relationship with Hamas is of particular importance.

We reach you today in Ramallah in the West Bank. How is the support for Hamas there?

Wildangel: Well, it is a bit schizophrenic. Since the tensions and the division of 2007 between Fatah and Hamas two almost entirely separate territories emerged; on the one hand the Gaza Strip, where Hamas rules, on the other hand the West Bank, where Fatah reigns. Of course, Hamas is present here as well. In recent days demonstrations took place and flags of Hamas were visible as well, but the organization in the West Bank is weak. Of course people are looking from the West Bank to Gaza. Many Palestinians have friends and close family there and are very worried. But these are very separate worlds. There are demonstrations in the West Bank and there were a few clashes, but overall the Gaza war is far away. (Addition: after the interview, protests in the West Bank were growing; on November 19th two people were killed by the Israeli Army during protests).  

I would like to ask you a little bit more generally: What developments or maybe which actors will now decide on war or peace?

Wildangel: I believe that these are the actors directly involved, Hamas and Israel in the first place. The intentions on both sides are not really clear. We know that there will be elections in Israel, so of course the Israeli government wants to take rigorous measures. It also wants to show that it does not tolerate rocket fire from Hamas. On the other hand, Hamas wants to make clear that it can still resist, that it still has military capabilities. But it seems as if both sides in fact are not sure how to transform this difficult situation into a victory. As I said, for Israel, a ground offensive is also associated with great risks and uncertainties. The continuation of this rocket fire means further destruction for the Palestinians and for Hamas in Gaza. So you can only hope that somehow both sides find a way out of this. Furthermore there must be a massive diplomatic intervention. The regional forces, as mentioned before, but also the EU and the US have to play a more active part.

What kind of intervention do you envision in this regard?

Wildangel: For example, in the framework of the UN, with concrete presence in the region and proactive positions. It is also necessary to rethink – and probably abandon – the paradigm of the past, namely that Hamas cannot be included in such discussions. What we have seen so far is a set of declarations of solidarity for Israel, the right to self-defence and so on – but that is not enough. Sometimes you get the feeling that these comments encourage the parties even more in their actions. This is also the case for the huge solidarity of the Arab world with Hamas. But this doesn’t lead to anything. As I said, we now need concrete diplomatic initiatives, initiatives in the UN, the Arab League, and here locally, which bring all parties of the conflict to the table.

But Hamas denies Israel's right to exist. To what extent is it an adequate interlocutor?

Well, that’s the question. It is perhaps not an “adequate” interlocutor, but this is a matter of pragmatism and diplomacy. After the election of 2006, which Hamas won, the famous three conditions were posed by the Middle East Quartet. They agreed: We will talk with Hamas only, if it complies with these conditions. One of the conditions was the recognition of Israel. Hamas didn’t do this, and it is not likely that it will do so in the future. But in diplomacy, you have to try to find solutions and ways out. And these three conditions were not very helpful. In the last five and a half years a lot of time has been wasted. And the conditions in the Gaza Strip, which I myself have visited this year very often, are simply catastrophic. Hamas is responsible for this as well. But if you build a wall around the Gaza Strip, pretending it does not exist and if you refuse to have any contact with Hamas, you will have no way to influence the difficult situation whatsoever. Hence, after this war and after a ceasefire, lots of creativity and a lot of new diplomatic activities are required.

René Wildangel is Head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's office in Ramallah.
Translated from the German by Eva Hösch, Ramallah.