On October 21, Egypt hosted a summit to discuss ways to resolve the Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza Strip. The summit was attended by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who called for the implementation of the Palestinian state solution and defined Israel's response to the Islamist terror attack as “a collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” The summit's outcome document states that the participating countries condemn the use of violence against civilians on both sides. Middle Eastern studies expert Ruslan Suleymanov explained to The Insider why a Palestinian state has not yet been established, what could await the Gaza Strip after Hamas, and why Egypt stepped up to host the peace summit.
Why has UN Secretary-General António Guterres invoked the need for a Palestinian state? Why has it not been established so far?
Guterres and his fellow international officials raise the issue every time there is an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that's when politicians remember that the Palestinian problem must be solved.
Importantly, the unresolved Palestinian issue harbors a whole set of security concerns. Speaking about Israel’s position, which is focused on preventing the Palestinians from realizing their right to a state as provided by the UN resolution, we have to admit this is a security issue for Israel. The Palestinians are not united: their politicians and factions are highly disparate. They are very incongruous in their methods of achieving the Palestinians’ right to a state of their own.
Among other things, there are a huge number of radical groups in the Palestinian movement, including Hamas, which believes that the state of Israel must not exist, that the state of Israel must be destroyed and that there can be no dialog with it. As a result, the authorities of the Jewish state consider it unacceptable that the state of Palestine should be created by such radical elements who are strongly opposed to the mere existence of Israel. That is why the armed struggle of these groups against Israel has been going on for many years.
Israel traditionally responds to shelling from the Gaza Strip – home to Hamas, which seized power in the exclave in 2007. And now we're witnessing the largest escalation in the history of the conflict. Every time in the past, the sides somehow managed to reach a ceasefire, a truce. Israel found the status quo acceptable because the chaos was partially manageable. But now Israel is adamant about resolving the Hamas issue definitively, that is, by completely destroying the group.
What awaits the Gaza Strip once Hamas is ousted
Certain factions within the Palestinian movement were convinced of the necessity to maintain a dialog with Israel and generally saw diplomacy as the only way out. This view was presented by the Fatah movement, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine. But he's discredited himself a lot in recent years: at the age of almost 90, he's a rather frail and ailing leader.
And now, after the atrocities committed by Hamas militants against Israel, diplomacy is off the table. Therefore, the conflict has rolled back 20, 30, or even 40 years, to the times when there was no legitimate political administration.
To remind you, power in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank was given to the Palestinians with Israel's consent only in 1994 as a result of negotiations in Washington and Oslo. The idea was that the Palestinians could administer their own territories, which they should receive for their state according to the 1947 UN General Assembly decision.
Today, we are facing a situation where Israel is determined to carry out a military operation. But as I see it, there’s no consensus yet as to what awaits the territory after that. One option is to create some kind of specialized structure under the auspices of the UN. One could draw parallels with Kosovo in 1999, for one, when special international structures were deployed in the region to ensure there was at least some authority there. This idea appears to be the most promising right now.
Neither Jordan nor Egypt needs Gaza or the West Bank - that's a major hassle, having to provide for such a large population. Egypt has enough problems of its own, dealing with a severe economic crisis and an upcoming presidential election, in which Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seeks to be re-elected, despite his ratings plummeting due to a plethora of social problems. We can also see how unwilling Jordan and Egypt are to accept Palestinian refugees because they don't want to get involved in the problem at all.
One way or another, I believe the Palestinians will stay in the Gaza Strip after all, and if Israel launches a ground military operation, obviously there will be casualties.
Speaking of the exclave's post-Hamas future, one can envision some kind of shared governance. Say, Israel and Egypt could establish some form of joint control over the Gaza Strip – possibly with the participation of Jordan and some other state. Alternatively, once again, we could be looking at a form of international governance, where a completely neutral non-Arab diplomat takes charge of the Gaza Strip (so far, we’re only talking about this area).
What Egypt gains from hosting the peace summit
I suppose Egypt's motivation lies in the field of reputational concerns. Egypt wants to look good – not only in the eyes of its population but also in the larger Arab and Muslim world. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi needs to save face.
For now, we’ve seen Egypt block not only flows of Palestinian refugees but even corridors needed for the delivery of humanitarian cargoes. For Egypt, it's a very painful issue and also a security concern due to its extremely complicated relationship with Hamas. The root cause is the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which Egypt has banned and declared a terrorist organization.
Nevertheless, Egypt has played a mediating role in recent years. Thus, it was Egypt that enforced the ceasefire agreement in May 2021, when there was the largest Israeli-Palestinian escalation to date. Today this would be much more difficult to achieve, and yet it is important for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to position Egypt as one of the flagships of the Arab world, to show the will to contribute to the settlement of the conflict and help the Palestinians realize their right to a state of their own – but nothing more.
At the end of the day, we didn't see any breakthrough solutions. Egypt needed to step up as a leading force that is concerned about Palestinian issues – because in practice, Egypt is reluctant to accept any Palestinian refugees at all, and this is an extremely painful topic for its leadership.