Lost encounter

Print edition : December 14, 2012

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy played a key role in the truce talks.-MAYA ALLERUZZO/AP

The ceasefire agreement shows that Israel is compelled to submit to the conditions of Hamas. Far from stamping Israels authority in the region, the conflict has exposed too many chinks in its armour.

RATTLED by the steady stream of rocket attacks by Palestinian militant groups, who sought to demonstrate that they were no longer isolated in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests, Israel mounted a specious effort to show that it had triumphed in the war it had imposed on Gaza. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. By failing to achieve its stated war objective of re-stamping its deterrence over Gaza-based groups and by shying away from a land invasion in the coastal strip, Israel paraded its weakness before the rest of the world. Israels ineptness to enforce its will on Gaza would not have gone unnoticed either by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) or the legions of Hizbollah fighters in Lebanon. Hizbollah already enjoys psychological dominance over Israel, for in the 2006 Lebanon war its Shia warriors stalled an Israeli advance in south Lebanon. Israels failure to achieve political goals, despite its preponderance of military force, is bound to embolden Iran as it prepares for a possible war waged by Israel and its patron, the United States.

Despite waves of bombardment by F-16s and Apache helicopters meant to destroy Hamas weapon stockpiles and impair its logistical lines, Palestinian groups continued to fire rockets into Israel, defiantly targeting Jerusalem, even as ceasefire talks in Egypt were in an advanced stage. At a Cairo press conference, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal claimed that it was not his disciplined troops but a squeamish Israel that had pleaded for truce. Egypt was asked by the Americans, European parties and from Israel directly to work to realise calm. They [Israel] attacked and they requested the calm because their calculations failed, Meshaal claimed. However, a senior Israeli official denied the Palestinian leaders assertion. Meshaal stressed that Palestinians were in the talks looking way beyond a ceasefire and were committed to achieving their larger and long-standing political goals. The people of Gaza are not asking for an end of the war, they are asking for their rights, they are asking that Israel end its assassinations and its raids and lift the blockade of Gaza, Meshaal asserted.

TERMS OF THE CEASEFIRE

The determination of Hamas and its alliesto view the war as a stepping stone for a lasting political accomplishmentapparently reflected in the terms of the ceasefire that was hammered out in Cairo and came into force on the night of November 21. Under the terms of the deal, Israel has agreed to stop all hostilities on the Gaza Strip, land, sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals, meeting a key Palestinian demand. In turn, All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel, including rocket attacks, and attacks along the border. Israel has also committed to opening all border crossings and easing the movement of people and goods. After eight days, God stayed their hand from the people of Gaza, and they were compelled to submit to the conditions of the resistance, said Meshaal in a Cairo hotel after the deal was signed. He thanked Egypt, as well as Iran, which he acknowledged had a role in arming his movement.

I would like to thank our dear Egypt, aided by the brave elected President Mohamed Morsy.... Egypt acted responsibly and understood the demands of the resistance and the Palestinian people. Jubilant crowds, chanting the victory slogan the resistance has won, flooded the streets of Gaza and the West Bank as news about the ceasefire spread in the night. AFP quoted Ahmed Bahr, a senior Hamas official, as saying: The resistance groups have achieved a historic victory and paved the way for the battle of liberating Palestine.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Egypt's Prime Minister Hisham Kandil (left) hold the body of a Palestinian boy.-REUTERS

Ceaseless air strikes by Israel during the week-long conflict had killed 140 Palestinians and destroyed dozens of buildings, including the office complex of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The war would also remain etched in public memory for the targeted attack on media centres, underscoring that a parallel media war was as much in play during the Gaza conflict as the fighting itself. Sensing victory and inclined not to miss the rare psychological moment, Hamas fielded Mohammed Deif, the head of its military wing, in the public domain even before the ceasefire agreement was inked. Deif, who had suffered grave physical disabilities in an earlier Israeli assassination attempt and has a well-founded mystique wrapped around him, appeared in a cannily timed video. Addressing members of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas military wing, he exhorted them to prepare for the long haul. You must prepare yourself. Put your faith in Allah and in your ability to win. Israel has underestimated Hamas. Were on constant alert. This path will lead us to paradise.

Meshaals assertion that Tel Aviv had initiated the ceasefire call cannot be brushed aside. Israel had apparently unleashed its powerful lobby in Capitol Hill to seek an end to the fighting in Gaza on terms that were favourable to it. The campaign appeared effective.

After maintaining a visible but relatively low profile, the U.S. suddenly jumped centre stage. President Barack Obama, who was in Cambodia to participate in the East Asia summit, worked well into the night to try and give shape to a budding ceasefire. He first called Morsy, who was steering the mediation, carried out on parallel tracks, with Palestinian groups and Israeli representatives in Cairo. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, was the next to receive his call. After the conversation, Obama once again turned to Morsy, underscoring Egypts critical role in ending the conflict. Unlike in the Mubarak era when Egypt was a pliant American ally, the Arab Spring, which ousted President Hosni Mubarak and elevated Morsy, a seasoned luminary of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the presidency, has changed the situation entirely.

As the conflict began with the assassination by Israel of top Hamas commander Ahmed al Jaabari, Morsy emerged as the voice of Egypts anger towards Israelis, born out of a deep empathy for the mostly impoverished 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza. Demonstrating unusual urgency, Morsy jolted his friends and critics alike by sending his Prime Minister, Hisham Kandil, into Gaza in a show of solidarity that went a long way in shaping the conflict as it unfolded. Overnight, Egypt became Hamas trump card. A smiling Ismael Haniyeh posed for pictures with Kandil, the visual mirroring a dramatic turnaround in the regions geopolitics. This visit reflects post-revolution Egypts solidarity with Gaza, said Haniyeh at a joint press conference. On his part, Kandil vowed not to remain silent in the face of the ongoing violence against Gaza and its people. Morsy used exceptionally strong language: he called the Israeli attack a farce and dubbed the aerial and naval bombardment of Gaza an expression of Israeli aggression.

Arab Foreign Ministers'meeting in Rafah on November 20.-SAID KHATIB/AP

Aware of his pivotal position in ending the crisis, influential people in the U.S. establishment have been threatening Morsy of dire economic consequences if he fails to comply with the script written by the U.S. and Israel. Senator Lindsey Graham, a powerful conservative hawk, warned Egypt to watch what you do and how you do it. Youre teetering with Congress on having your aid cut off if you keep inciting violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The run-up to Jaabaris assassination shows that Morsy is spot on in designating Israel as the aggressor. The pro-Palestinian website Electronic Intifada has recorded in considerable detail that a spurt in clashes had nearly abated when the flare-up began with Jaabaris killing. The website points out that an earlier cycle of violence had begun when Israeli planes killed a man in Gaza, who was accused by Israel of firing mortars at its soldiers. In response, on October 29 the Palestinians slammed 26 rockets into Israel (they injured or killed no one). Since then there was hardly any rocket firing from Gaza, according to the Israel-based Twitter account Qassam Count, which keeps a tab on the projectiles that the Palestinians fire. Yet, on November 4, the Israelis killed an unarmed and mentally unfit man, who was walking near a buffer area that had been carved out by Israel inside the Gaza Strip.

Four days later, during an Israeli incursion into Gaza, a child, by the name of Ahmad Abu Daqqa, was fatally injured, near al-Qarara village north-east of Khan Younis. It was only then that the Palestinians fired two rockets into Israel, according to Qassam Count. On November 10, the Palestinians attacked an Israeli military jeep near the Gaza border, injuring four soldiers. With that, a new cycle of violence commenced. The Israelis attacked with ferocity over the next 72 hours, killing seven Palestinians, of whom five were civilians, three of their children, according to a count by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). Fifty-two others, including six women and 12 children, were wounded.

After the November 10 attacks, the Palestinians let go a barrage of rockets but halted the attacks the next day because Egypt got involved in working out a ceasefire. Israels Ynet news reported that Egyptian intelligence officials had successfully brokered an end to the current round of escalation in the south. Two rockets were fired on November 12, but these attacks came amid air strikes by Israel. Nevertheless, on November 13, Reuters reported that after five days of mounting violence, Israel and the Palestinians stepped back from the brink of a new war in the Gaza Stripsending signals to each other via Egypt that they would hold their fire unless attacked. Yet, the fragile truce was broken the very next day with the assassination of Jaabari.

GAME CHANGER

While Egypt has been a game changer in the latest war, Hamas and its allies in Gaza have been emboldened also by the support that they received from other powerful regional allies. Tunisia, the first country to experience the Arab Spring protests, sent its Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem a day after Hisham Kandils visit. Turkey and Qatar have also rendered solid support to the Palestinians although both countries are not immune to U.S. pressure because of their dependence on Washington. The Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Qatar, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, at the call of the Arab League, travelled together to boost Gazas morale. On arrival in Gaza, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, said: Before our visit to Gaza we had an idea about what is happening there, but what we have seen today is far beyond what we had heard. Views of the damage and the killings are very intense. The Minister asserted that Egypt will never tolerate the blockade, nor the stifling of the Strip, referring to the punishing embargo that Israel has imposed on Gaza since 2007.

Palestinians celebrate the beginning of the truce in Gaza City on November 21.-MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

In the entire story of Hamas unprecedented rise as a military and political heavyweight, Iran has remained a silent but crucial player. The long-range Fajr-5 missiles that apparently targeted Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are of Iranian pedigree. According to one view, these missiles in their dismantled form, along with other weapons, have been funnelled through a complex networkthe supply chain extending from Iran, Sudan, Egypt and Gaza, the final journey undertaken across a maze of cross-border tunnels that connect the Rafah border on the Egyptian side with the coastal strip. This has opened room for speculationthough this might still be part of elaborate mind gamesthat the recent attack by Israeli warplanes on a weapons manufacturing factory in Sudan may have an Iranian angle to it. Weighing in on the debate about its role in arming Hamas, Iran has acknowledged that it has transferred technology but not war material into Gaza.

Ahead of the ceasefire, the commander of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari, said that Iran played the role of supplying Fajr-5 know-how to the Palestinian resistance movement. Gaza is currently under siege, so we cannot help them, said Jafari, but added that the transfer of Iranian technology had enabled the Palestinian resistance to quickly produce these weapons on its own quickly. As pundits begin to analyse the outcome of the November war in Gaza, it will not be hard to conclude that, despite the preponderance of war material and personnel, Israel has lost this encounter to Hamas and its allies.

Some pro-Israeli commentators have decided to shift the goal posts, arguing that the war in Gaza was nothing but a dress rehearsal for a larger conflict with Iran and the purpose of the attacks was to neutralise Hamas and its allies so that the toothless comrades of Tehran would fail to open up a second front against Israel once a war with Iran began.

Then, there is another theory that the Gaza war was meant to test the rocket-destroying Iron Dome system, born out of a fusion of state-of-the art technology pooled in by U.S. and Israeli scientists and technicians. That should worry the Israelis all the more, for propaganda apart, the performance of the Iron Dome system in protecting major towns and cities in Israel from Palestinian rockets was far from satisfactory. Israels layered missile defences would have to work with far greater efficiency to match and destroy a possible rain of Hizbollah, Hamas and Iranian projectiles, spearheaded by the deadly Shihab family of missiles, should a war with Iran ebegin.

By setting course on an imprudent misadventure in Gaza, Netanyahu may win the January elections in Israel. But in return for that he has paid a heavy price. Far from stamping Israels authority, he has exposed too many chinks in his countrys armour. With the limitations of a military solution so graphically evident, it now remains to be seen whether the Gaza war will finally open the doors for negotiations, not only with Hamas and its allies but with those who have supported it, especially Iran. Despite domestic support for Netanyahus muscular approach, all hope for a durable diplomatic solution has not been extinguished yet. Around 100 prominent Israeli intellectuals signed a petition that sought a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. The petitioners say that dialogue, either directly or through an international mediator, is unavoidable because the residents of the South (Israel), like the people of Gaza, have the right to look up to the sky with hope and not with fear.

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