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.

Ceasefire declared, but conditions that led to escalation remain
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