Gaza Cease-Fire Dynamics Explained: What Cease-Fire will Work?

After nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip over the past week, there is finally increased discussion of attaining a cease-fire. The truth is, everyone knew it would have to end with a cease-fire, the only questions were how many more Palestinians would be killed, when would it happen and on what terms. Much of the discourse on this issue to tragically misinformed about the dynamics or fire between Israel and Gaza both during and outside of cease-fire agreements. Using data that ranges nearly ten years and with a closer focus on a subsection that was the 2012 cease-fire period, we explain below how these dynamics work in an effort to inform a way forward.

This first chart below depicts the number of launches from Gaza of projectiles from September of 2004 through this May. That is nearly a decade. It starts at September because that’s how far back our data set goes on this issue, but this significant span of time gives you a very clear picture of the ebbs and flows. Launches can involve one projectile (which is often the case) or more. I’ve highlighted some key events.

Two things become very clear when looking at this chart. The single most effective way to bring projectile fire from Gaza to a halt is through a cease-fire agreement. Military campaigns have only had the effect of increasing the number of projectiles fired. The June 2008 agreement brought projectile fire from Gaza to near zero until the Israelis broke the truce on Nov. 4th, 2008 sparking the escalation that culminated in the massive attack that was “Operation Cast Lead”. What’s clear from this is that the military operation generated far more rockets than the absence of it. Keep in mind the context which this is taking place, prior to “Operation Cast Lead”, according to B’Tselem’s statistics, over 392 Palestinians were killed on average in each year from 2004-2008in Gaza alone. That’s more than one a day for 4 years.

A similar story plays out in 2012. We covered the lead up to this escalation and dynamics of fire earlier in 2012¬†showing how the vast majority of projectiles from Gaza were provoked by Israeli strikes causing Palestinian casualties. The most significant event that lead to Hamas’ participation in the eight-day bombardment in 2012 was the assassination of Ahmad Jaabari who was killed by Israel as he was negotiating a longer term truce. Again, a military campaign by Israel generated more projectile fire than the absence of it, proving once more that there was no military solution to this problem for Israel.

After the eight-day bombing campaign in 2012, a cease-fire agreement was reached through Egypt and US mediation. We began watching adherence to the terms of that agreement closely. The terms of the agreement included both sides halting attacks and Israel easing restrictions as well. This meant:

Israel shall stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land, sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.

All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel, including rocket attacks and all attacks along the border.

Opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas. Procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.

So what did adherence to these terms look like? Well, we graphed it out below. Numbers here for attacks from Gaza come from Israel’s Shabak, so it is unlikely they are understated. Numbers for Palestinian injuries, deaths, Israeli incursions and attacks on fishermen come from UN OCHA.

In the immediate aftermath of the cease-fire agreement no projectiles were launched from Gaza into Israel. Rather Israel continued to fire into Gaza, killing one Palestinian, injuring 42 others, committing four incursions and firing at or detaining 48 Palestinian fishermen off the coast. It was not until after most of these violations that the first projectile from Gaza post-ceasefire was launched on Dec. 24, 2012.

What the chart above clearly depicts is that even when rocket fire comes to a halt as called for by the cease-fire agreement, Israel continues its violations with total impunity. When the rockets stop, the siege, occupation and colonization of Palestine does not. I think we can draw from this some keys to a sustainable cease-fire agreement:

1. An agreement must be clear in terms of what constitutes a violation so that the actors will have to consider the ramifications of public condemnation before committing a violation.

2. An agreement must take into consideration the dramatic imbalance of power between the sides. If there is a Palestinian violation, Israel retains the capacity to hold them accountable independently and at will, often inflicting disproportionate causalities leading to escalation. But when Israel violates the cease-fire, Palestinians cannot hold them accountable. The absence of any mechanism for monitoring Israeli violations and holding them to account creates incentives for Palestinians to do so in other ways, like firing projectiles.

3. An agreement must ensure that Israel does not use its position of power to unilaterally change the terms. The previous cease-fire included an easing of restrictions as part of the detailed understanding between the parties negotiated through Egypt. This meant fisherman could fish up to six nautical miles from the coast instead of the previously imposed three nautical mile mark. It also meant Palestinians could access farm land up to 300 meters from the fence, previously Israel had fired at Palestinians as far as 1500 meters away. But during the course of the cease-fire, Israel unilaterally changed those terms, reinforcing the three nautical mile mark and going back to shooting Palestinians near the fence even as far away as 1500 meters.

4. An agreement must take into account the devastating human rights crisis and humanitarian situation in Gaza that lies at the foundation of discontent there. As mentioned above, when it came to “easing restrictions” the previous agreement was mostly about determining what would be the dimensions of the prison cell that is the Gaza Strip. For real progress, an agreement must challenge the very notion that Palestinians should be stuck in this prison at all and move toward ending the collective punishment that is Israel’s siege on the Strip.

Of course there are bigger problems here as well, including the ongoing denial of Palestinian self-determination and repatriation which all people who care about justice should continue to struggle for, but an agreement that followed the points above would be a marked improvement over previous ones and undoubtedly be more durable that its predecessors given the reasons they have failed. Chances are however, given the power dynamics in Israel, Egypt and the US, it’s more likely that the type of agreement that will be imposed on Palestinians will likely only fall apart. The only question is how many months it will last and how many Palestinians will be killed during this “cease-fire.”