JERUSALEM // Just hours before Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Cairo were expected to extend an eight-day ceasefire, three rockets landed in southern Israel, ending hopes of a resolution to the brutal six-week conflict in Gaza.
There was confusion on all sides as to why Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the territory, would scupper a peace deal that was beginning to look like a diplomatic victory.
Hamas had already secured an extension to a safe zone for fishermen, and progress was expected on its demands for a sea port and airport.
With the unleashing the three rockets on Tuesday night towards the Israeli city Be’er Sheva, Hamas appeared willing to give away those gains.
“It had looked like Hamas had snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat – it was looking quite good for them. They had got their port, the lifting of restrictions on access and relations between the US and Israel were at an all-time low. They had gone into the conflict weak but looked like they would emerge stronger,” said Hugh Lovatt, Israel and Palestine coordinator at the European Council for Foreign Relations.
After the rockets landed, Israel immediately withdrew its negotiating team and launched an airstrike on the home of Hamas’s military chief, Mohammed Deif, in Gaza City, killing his wife and two young children. A volley of rockets followed from Hamas, some of which were shot down near Jerusalem, where sirens sounded for the first time in weeks.
Perhaps realising the scale of lost opportunity, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation accused Israel of fabricating the attack as an excuse to abandon the talks, saying no Palestinian militant group had taken responsibility for the volley.
But as rockets again rained down on Israel on Thursday and airstrikes killed dozens of people in Gaza, including three of Hamas’s most senior commanders, the ceasefire talks seemed a distant memory.
On Wednesday night the Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida vowed an increase in rockets, while Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared the militants to the Islamic State and said Israeli attacks would continue as long as necessary.
“The more this goes on the harder it will be for either side to walk away. Each side needs to demonstrate that the sacrifice was worth something. We need a ceasefire that both sides can spin as a victory,” said Mr Lovatt.
Hamas went into this latest conflict in a far weaker position, internationally, than ever before. With the rule of its ally, the Mulsim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi, in Egypt a distant memory and Gulf states – concerned about Brotherhood interference in their own nations – reluctant to support Hamas, its only ally was Qatar which, against the combined bulk of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, had little influence in the latest truce talks.
For Hamas, the difference this time around was the accord with the Palestinian Authority, which worked in its favour throughout the talks and proved that the unity government deal signed in April had stood the test of time.
That Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was in Qatar on Thursday meeting Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal suggests that Hamas’s alliance with the PA will stick beyond the end of the war.
However, there have been suggestions that Hamas’s dependence on Qatar may have been a factor in the collapse of the talks. At least one official from Mr Abbas’s Fatah faction said Doha pressured Hamas to demand even more concessions as a way to reduce the chances of a deal being brokered by Cairo, with which it is at odds over its support for the Brotherhood.
He said the experience indicated the Qataris “have no interest” in seeing Egyptian-led talks succeed, and that Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood are working together to undermine Egypt.
Qatar, which had been notable only for its absence during the last six weeks of conflict and ceasefires, may be poised to re-emerge as a player in the Palestinian political realm, but its strength will be in cementing the alliance between Hamas and the PA.
“Qatar is basically Hamas’s last ally – given that Turkey is struggling and failing to insert itself into the process, Doha really is the only game in town,” said Michael Stephens, deputy director at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha.
But perversely, the Palestinian unity government that was so vociferously opposed by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it was announced in April, could also be the last option for Israel to avoid further conflict also. If Hamas were to agree to a greater role for the PA in Gaza – which it appeared willing to in the latest round of peace talks – then it would allow Mr Netanyahu to back out of a conflict that risks weakening him at home the longer it goes on.
“Netanyahu knows that short of killing every Hamas member in Gaza and reoccupying the strip … the unity government remains the best way forward. It will allow both sides to sell a potential ceasefire deal to their domestic audiences,” said Mr Lovatt.
The question remains whether, with several of its senior leaders leaders killed in renewed Israeli bombing, Hamas can cede enough to the Palestinian Authority to bring the Israelis back to the table without losing too much face. That is likely what is on the table in Doha this week, and not everyone is positive.
“I think they will struggle to cede full control of the Gaza Strip to the PA and we could see numerous and possibly endless disagreements between them,” Mr Stephens said.
“Hopefully there will be some form of reconciliation, but I’m not holding my breath.”
* With additional reporting from Associated Press