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Ceasefire declared, but conditions that led to escalation remain

As attacks from both sides come to a halt, Hamas claims victory while Prime Minister Netanyahu faces criticism at home. The Palestinian Authority seems more irrelevant than at any other point since the Oslo Accords.

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate the ceasefire reached between Hamas and Israel, November 21, 2012 (Photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

An agreement over a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas went into effect at around 9:00 p.m. local time today (Wednesday). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a press conference at 8:30, after which the IDF was to stop all offensive activities. Shortly after 9:00, 12 more rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel, but since then, it seems Hamas is holding up its end of the agreement.

In Israel, the right and even some centrist political figures (especially from Kadima) are criticizing Netanyahu for not ordering a ground invasion or at least continuing the airstrikes. However, it’s not yet clear to what extent the political map has changed because of the operation or the way it ended. At the same time, there are reports and pictures of celebrations in the Gaza Strip.

It’s too early to estimate the long-term effect of operation Pillar of Defense. What seems like a victory at present could turn out to be a defeat, and vice versa.  The Second Lebanon War was considered a failure for Israel both locally and internationally, but it seems that it caused more trouble for the Hezbollah than anyone imagined at the time. Similarly, Israelis celebrated the success of Cast Lead in 2009, but none of the operation’s stated goals were met, and the devastating toll in Palestinian lives that assault took ended up haunting Israel. I have no doubt that the aftermath of Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report were in the minds of Israeli and international leaders in the last week, and could account for the diplomatic effort to end the fighting – an effort that began at a relatively early stage – and for the Israeli leadership’s reluctance to order a ground invasion.

Since the Jabari assassination last Wednesday, more than 140 Palestinians were killed, including dozens of civilians and many children. Five Israelis – three civilians, one soldier, and one civilian working for the army – also lost their lives.

Here are a few takeaways from the last week’s events:

Hamas seems strengthened. The negotiations leading to the ceasefire agreement promoted its leaders to a new status in the international arena. The details of the ceasefire are not clear, but if – as some reports indicate – Israel and Egypt loosen the blockade on the Strip a bit more, Hamas could claim a meaningful achievement that benefits the population of the Gaza Strip, thus strengthening its claim as the leading party in the opposition to the occupation.

Hamas will surely take pride in some other precedents it set, including firing rockets at Tel Aviv and the greater Jerusalem area, something that even Hezbollah in 2006 wasn’t able or willing to do. Despite the relatively minor damage those rockets caused, from an Israeli perspective, the mere fact that they were fired might be the biggest problem of all: just like rockets attacks on the larger cities of the south – Be’er Sheeva and Ashdod – became the new standard after Cast Lead, attacks on Tel Aviv are now the minimum threshold for every organization or regime who will seek to challenge Israel by force. It is a serious blow to Israeli deterrence, which was, as IDF officials repeated again and again in the last few days, the reason for this entire operation.

Even those who still believed in the Palestinian Authority as a vessel for change to the status quo had to admit this week that it has become all but irrelevant. President Abbas’ UN bid, planned to take place at the end of the month, now looks like a sad farce. Who needs to travel to New York – to get what exactly? – when Hamas brought the secretary general here? Not to mention the fact that Israel and the United States ended up negotiating through Egypt with Hamas itself. Ramallah must have been a very lonely place in the last week.

Yet a success for Hamas or even an Israeli failure does not necessarily translate into a long-term achievement for the Palestinians. This is not a zero-sum game of two parties. The real Palestinian interest lies in a unification of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and an agreed upon leadership that advances the Palestinian cause in a meaningful way. This goal is no closer than it was a couple of weeks ago.

The only military success, from an Israeli perspective, was the introduction of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which proved to be extremely effective in intercepting hundreds of short and medium-range rockets, something that was considered impossible just a few years ago. Yet even this fact needs to be seen in context: defense systems are a tool that can increase the operating space and the options that lie before decision-makers. They do so by reducing the death toll and thus public pressure on politicians to pursue offensive measures. In theory, Iron Dome should allow Israeli leaders to take diplomatic initiatives, because the security risks that they bring are reduced. But Israel is governed by politicians who believe that the Palestinian issue can be contained by the use of offensive military power, so the maneuvering room provided by a good defense system becomes almost irrelevant.

On a positive side, one can imagine that without the Iron Dome, we would have already been well within the ground invasion, with all the terrible consequences on human lives it would have brought.

Looking ahead, we should remember that the fundamentals of the situation in Gaza remain unchanged. The Strip is still under aerial and naval blockade, and movement of people is allowed only through the Rafah crossing to Egypt. Export is almost entirely forbidden, so the local economy cannot grow; the power grid is controlled by Israel, and frequent power failures result in sewage failures and a growing water crisis. Construction materials are not allowed in, so large-scale projects are impossible to carry out. The pressure on the civilian population is enormous, and its dependence on foreign aid is almost total.

All this has almost nothing to do with Israeli national security, since military supplies arrive through the tunnels. Israeli strategies and actions are directed at the civilian population, perhaps in the hopes that the people will blame Hamas for their problems and remove the organization from power, something that the Israeli army hasn’t been able to do, though it tried twice.

If anything was proven last week (and the couple of months leading up to it), it’s that “containment” and other code words for the status quo are not an option. It’s time to examine the entire Israeli and international policy regarding Gaza, and most importantly, to address the right of the Palestinian population to dignity, justice and hope. Only then can this ceasefire become more than an introduction to the next escalation.

Netanyahu answers Facebook comments criticizing ceasefire with Hamas

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    1. AYLA

      thanks for this and all you do, Noam.

      Reply to Comment
    2. un2here

      Are we reading the same agreement? I find many things that will tremendously ease daily life, most noteworthy is “refraining from … targeting residents in border areas” – assuming this means the farmers in Gaza will no longer be shot and killed in the so called “bufferzone.” And an end to the frequent incursions – which were an important aspect of how the escalation developed – is also most welcome.

      Reply to Comment
      • We have to see what is upheld here.

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      • Kolumn9

        The only actual operative clauses of the agreement are those that call for quiet-for-quiet. Clauses 1a and 1b.

        I present the glorious clause 1c: “Opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents free movement, and targeting residents in border areas and procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.”

        ‘shall be dealt with’ is absolutely meaningless. Typing up the word ‘No’ also means that it has been ‘dealt with’. Queue the usual recriminations where the Palestinians claim that Israel is breaching agreements because of a persistent inability to read and comprehend what they are signing while Israel brandishes the actual written agreements in response which among allusions cleverly avoid making any actual commitments.

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    3. Madness.

      But at least it seems that citizens have prevailed over the purveyors of medieval malice.

      Thanks be to God.

      BTW cld you just imagine if the Interior Minister send Gaza back to the middle ages comments – or Baby Sharon’s nuclear hued lust for genocide – were expressed by a bearded man in Tehran.

      Could you imagine the media fall-out.

      You’d need a flak jacket to sit at your Mac.

      And everyone wld hear about it several times.
      And it would get the blood curdling commentary it merits.

      Saying Hiroshima was not good enough, Nagasaki was needed too and that Gaza shld be razed to nothing.

      In a national paper.

      That scoundrel should be run out of civilised society.

      But sadly the Israeli body politic is losing claim to the sobriquet civilised.

      Reply to Comment
    4. I think Iron Dome pivotal for the reason you state: its success reduced pressure for an immediate, necessary invasion. I also think the US was pivotal, and I doubt there would be this cease fire attempt if we were waiting for a Romney Presidency. Bibi was undoubtedly heavily pressured by a 4 years to go President, as Clinton’s time in Cairo flags. Egypt under an Islamic Presidency is unwilling to ignore the blockade (it seems), which fits into (Democratic) American reasoning that the siege induces violent response and creates unending economic subordinace. (What possible reason could there be, security wise, for forbidding EXPORTS from Gaza?)

      I would like to know how much Iron Dome has cost Israel these weeks; I think that should be made public, and I think US aid should accelerate placing more Dome batteries online.

      Egypt is right that the seige must be lifted, which means Egypt will have to, with yet more American aid, be able to police products through their gate. IF Hamas can control its territory (not its MEN, a different thing), there is chance that the Israelis will find it much harder to contain the economic aspirations of 1.7 million people as it had done to date. Both Egypt and Hamas will be tested; the price of failure is American withdrawal, I suspect.

      Again: limited evidence from the media suggests to me that the Obama Administration has concluded their inaction on Cast Lead was a mistake, but they are now, given what I think is a willing partner in an Islamic Egytian President, ready to try and ease the siege. Bibi likely is unhappy, waiting for Hamas to fail to control its territory–no mean feat, given the fractured network nature of Islamic Jihad, some Hamas, and who knows who else on the ground.

      Reply to Comment
    5. JKNoReally

      This is THE BEST outcome analysis so far – except that the prescription at the end is a contradiction in terms; Hamas’ idea of achieving “dignity” and “justice” for Palestinians requires many more escalations against Israel. Unfortunately, there is no diplomatic solution to Israel’s rocket problem, least of all one that concedes more freedom of movement to Gazans. Noam takes a respectable stand in favor of leniency for its own sake, but he tests our credulity too much by suggesting it will improve Israel’s security. The truth is that Israel has no good choices now, and must recognize that America is changing its priorities. Cultivating a stable relationship with Morsy is now more important than resolving Israel’s long-term exposure to rockets. Obama will do what is necessary to preserve the Egyptian President’s prestige, at Israel’s expense. Signaling his willingness to restrain Israel’s ground operations in the future, as he has just done, and pressuring Israel to accept the Ikhwans terms, are just the beginning. Much more will be done to shift the balance of power in Hamas’ favor for the sake of “stability.”

      Reply to Comment
    6. The Trespasser

      Cease fire is not bad for the military as well – will give time to improve and set up additional Iron Dome systems.

      This operation had shown that although Hamas has ability to hit Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, such ability is severely constrained by the Iron Dome.

      Basically, Hamas had lost one last tool to pressure on Israel.

      Not being able to cause ANY damage at all to your enemy makes waging any of war really problematic.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Aaron Gross

      That was kind of a disappointing analysis. For all the talk of political maps and long-term effects, the main operational goal is forgotten: to stop the rocket attacks on southern Israel. The operation was a success so far. Nobody expects the cease-fire to last forever, but if it lasts for two or three years, then this operation was an unqualified success.

      One of the main questions on the “political map” is the change in Egypt’s relation to Gaza. Israel has, or should have, the strategic goal of getting Egypt to take more responsibility for Gaza. Morsi spoke of how the Gazans and Egyptians are brothers, Egypt can’t leave Gaza on its own, etc. Israel should act strategically to make Morsi’s words a reality.

      Agreed on the importance of Iron Dome for the operation’s success, but luck was a big part as well: there was no Qana type accident.

      Kudos go to Netanyahu, Barak, and the other leaders of the operation.

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    8. XYZ

      I am not sure how much the ‘pride’ HAMAS got for firing rockets into Tel Aviv is really worth, politically. Saddam Hussein also fired rockets, much larger rockets with bigger warheads into Tel Aviv. Where is he today? HAMAS carried out far deadlier attacks on Israel during the Oslo suicide bomber war a decade ago. How much closer are they to the final eradication of Israel their charter calls for? If a movement’s prestige is based primarily on how many enemy civilians it can kill, how does this pay off in achieving its ultimate goals?

      Reply to Comment
    9. You really seem to have no idea what it means to live in a closed economy. If you really want to weaken Hamas in Gaza–open the siege, let the economy create rival factions for support. Let the disastifaction those have for Hamas in Gaza create alternatives. It will not be always easy; but it is impossible now.

      And own up to the Israeli State decision to keep Gazans just above starvation.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        One of the HAMAS leaders recently pointed out that running an ongoing, multi-generarational revolutionary war of attrition against Israel and governing a territory where people want a better, more comfortable life was proving more difficult than they had imagined.
        Nasser was done in by this contradiction. It could be that Assad is also paying the price now for this. Sadat tried a war, saw the immense cost in spite of a small ‘moral victory’ and threw in the towel and settled for peace. Mubarak realized the same thing and tried to maintain stablized relations with Israel which wouldn’t strain his economy.
        HAMAS will learn that they can’t do both things at once. If Mursi thinks he can bring a bankrupt Egypt back up to a war footing, while imposing a radical ideology on his people while promising to imrpove their standard of living at the same time, he won’t last very long either.

        Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        If siege would be lifted than there won’t be any reason to be dissatisfied with Hamas.

        You perception of the whole Israel/Palestine situation has so little with reality that I don’t even know where to start.

        Anyway we’ve already been at “democracy” and “alternatives” stage


        Reply to Comment
    10. Richard Witty

      I agree with your first assessment that it is too soon to tell anything, if “winners/losers” is relevant to anything.

      The rest of your analysis seems flawed to me.

      Hamas is strengthened relative to Israel and the PA, in that the prospect of denying them a voice in process is eliminated, and resulting from the use of force. (That is the biggest loser, the prospect for talk and reason alone as a basis of negotiation.)

      Relative to Egypt, their stature received a large disappointment. From a status two weeks ago of joint declarations that “the siege of Gaza is over”, as a result of the international pressures that Hamas forced onto Egypt, the Rafah crossing was closed, and tunnel destruction was expedited, 180 degrees in variance from Hamas’ requests.

      Also, although the PA stature relative to its ability to petition the UN is not diminished in potence, nor in relevance, in the slightest. That is the only path that achieves any sliver of Palestinian sovereignty, of transforming Palestinian international status from non-entity to peer. The Hamas approach leaves Palestine as resistance movement ONLY, and makes sovereignty more remote more than more likely.

      The Israeli military has been notably unusually effective, in realizing an almost unimaginably positive ratio of achieved military objectives relative to Israeli casualties and civilian Palestinian casualties.

      Finally, the most compelling change politically is the role of Egypt. Hamas assumed that Muslim Brotherhood controlled Egypt would play the role of loyal solidarity and back it in all its demands. Instead, Muslim Brotherhood Egypt sought the role of Middle East mediator, and privately sought to dissuade Hamas from shelling Israeli civilians, for the prospect that it would be drawn into war with Israel (which it would lose) and alienation and even possibly war with the US.

      Things change quickly, hopefully for the better.

      For the better must include permanent security from rocket firing from Gaza or elsewhere at Israeli civilians, and establishment of viable Palestinian self-determination.

      Hamas has only succeeded in achieving 2 days forward of the 200 year war for the establishment of uninterrupted Islamic sovereignty over the region, and has failed in achieving the decade forward towards mutual acceptance that a negotiated settlement would represent.

      The best success that could come out of this, is the recognition of the part of Israel and of the US, of the need to keep the PA effective and accede to its very reasonable goals and conditions.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Richard Witty

      The most important grave loss of the escapade, a conspiracy between Hamas and likud together, is the utter implausibility now of any political opposition to likud/israel beitanhu.

      The primary fault of that, the initiating cause, was of Hamas in escalating beyond minor skirmishes.

      Netanyahu and likud/Israel Beitanhu was electorally exposed on the basis of the degradation of international relations resulting from his and his party’s treatment of immediate neighbors and European and most prominently American allies.

      The US saved Israel (in influencing Egypt to not join in practice in the attack), and in clearly stating “Israel has a right to defend itself” in the press, UN, world in general, with no ambiguity possible.

      Reply to Comment