Monday, November 26, 2012

The Israel-Hamas Ceasefire: Not with a Bang but a Whimper

It looked like a nightmare dreamt too many times: Israel assassinates top Hamas leader, Hamas increases rocket fire, Israel threatens a ground incursion, and a US-Egyptian brokered ceasefire is reached, and in the interim people's lives were lost. To many, the latest conflict between Gaza and Tel Aviv offers a story told time and time again with much the same result. The biggest losers were certainly the Gazans and Israelis who lost their lives – 158 and 3 respectively – while for the most part, Hamas’s objectives have been achieved, as have those of the Israeli government. Yet for all the news coverage hailing the end to fighting, has anything really changed?

A rocket is destroyed by Iron Dome. Photo by Emanuel Yellin.

Outside observers have already called into question Israel’s decision to assassinate Mahmoud Jabari at this particular moment, with explanations ranging from pure dumb luck to a political calculation by the ruling Likud party. Assassinating Jabari when a long-term ceasefire was reportedly close at hand (and may have been, in fact, in his hands) risked the fragile peace process, enflamed radical factions, and created a leadership vacuum. Whoever his successor is will need a long time to gain the support and popularity necessary to convince Gazans to maintain any future ceasefires. Jabari was a figure who could negotiate both with extremists within his own party and those without; his political capital cannot be replaced in a short period of time and, in many ways, his death will actually hurt Israel’s ability to implement a peace agreement.

Many have posited that Binyamin Netanyahu used the assassination to look “tough on Gaza” in the face of the upcoming Israeli elections in January. Such allegations cannot be discounted entirely, but this was hardly the first time an assassination attempt was made on Jabari, who had been targeted in and survived four previous attacks. Operation Pillar of Defense was publicly popular in Israel, but Netanyahu may have been wisest in deciding not to opt for a ground operation that would not have received such wide support. His government also avoided the internationally unpopular civilian casualties that marked the last Gaza conflict, Operation Cast Lead, indicating that the point of Pillar of Defense was not to militarily overwhelm Gaza. More likely is the assertion that this was not a true conflict but a testing ground. Israel managed to test the efficacy of the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system (90 percent of targeted missiles were successfully destroyed) while at the same time measuring the amount of support other governments could and would lend to Hamas if a serious escalation with, say, Iran were to take place. It also tested the United States and other Western countries’ reactions at a time when the Israeli government is thought to have severely damaged ties with Barack Obama’s U.S. government. That the West in large part came out in support of Israel’s right to self-defense was a welcome diplomatic signal in Tel Aviv.

IDF poster distributed in the West

Iran was likely the main spectator Israel hoped to impress with its weapons and defense capabilities, support from the West, and willingness to take military action when provoked. A conflict over Iran’s nuclear weapons program has been mounting for months, and Israel had to ensure that if and when a war comes, it can defend itself from attacks launched from Iran as well as Lebanon and Gaza. While the Iron Dome system proved itself capable of deterring a short-range attack from Gaza, it is telling that the Israeli government’s attention is now on the creation of David’s Sling, a medium- to long-range missile defense system that would primarily protect it against attacks from Lebanon or Iran. Now that the near enemy has been subdued, questions of attacks from afar have once again become Israel’s primary concern.

Much like the Israeli government, Hamas emerged from the latest conflict with clear victories both domestically and abroad. A longstanding issue (recently covered by Zach) has been the challenge to Hamas from within Gaza by other, oftentimes more militant groups like Islamic Jihad. Hamas stands in a precarious position in Gaza: in order to keep the peace it must stop rocket attacks both by itself and other groups, but in order to maintain popular support it cannot afford to look “soft on Israel.” In other words, it wants to avoid the problems experienced by Fatah when the group began policing other militant organizations. Hamas cannot put an end to rocket attacks by opposition groups without risking domestic condemnation; nor can it risk not firing rockets of its own and handing the popularity garnered by such attacks to its rivals. The solution for Hamas was to launch rockets, but largely at sites like fields where no civilian casualties were likely.

Throughout Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas managed to look as though it successfully stood up to Israel and achieved its goals, all the while not risking its diplomatic standing with the West and other Arab governments. The ceasefire provides for its three main goals: an end to the conflict, a halt to incursions and assassinations, and increased ability of movement for people and goods. Victory rallies throughout Gaza upon news of the ceasefire illustrated that the Gazan public views this latest conflict as a win for Hamas. The separation of celebrants into different groups according to political affiliation, however, demonstrates that obstacles remain to Hamas’s unilateral control of the Gaza Strip.

Hamas also used the conflict as a testing ground for its new pivot away from its former Iranian and Syrian allies and towards Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey. Relations with Syria have significantly deteriorated as Hamas has disavowed the beleaguered President Bashar al-Asad, and with them the relationship with Iran has been dealt a blow as well. The flood of Arab envoys that visited Gaza indicated the tilt towards the other side of the “Middle Eastern Cold War:” Turkey, Egypt, and Qatar will assume ever-growing important roles in the mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The clear loser in this conflict, aside from the civilians who lost their lives, was Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas. Although the West Bank leader persists in his campaign for non-member status at the UN, his organization’s image among Palestinians and the world community continues to wane. Palestinians are disillusioned and disenchanted with his policy of diplomatic recognition, which many no longer believe will lead to a viable statehood for Palestine. That Fatah was barely given a seat at the negotiating table for the ceasefire talks also shows that the international community has noted its diminished significance in all things Palestine. In the future, it is Hamas, not Fatah, which will represent Palestinians on the world stage. Only by finding a way to reconcile with Hamas will Abbas’s party avoid fading away into oblivion.

Top: A Gazan home following an Israeli strike
Bottom: An Israeli home following a rocket attack

Egypt was the final major player in the Israel-Gaza conflict and newly elected president Mohammed Morsi revealed himself to be adept at maintaining dove policies while projecting a more popular hawkish image to the Arab world. His policies did not stray in substance from Hosni Mubarak’s: he pursued a rapid conclusion that would avoid further Egyptian entanglement in a messy conflict. While his rhetoric was much stronger than that of his predecessor, his actions proved to be in the same vein as Mubarak’s. His concern is keeping the calm within Egypt. Given the massive security (Sinai) and economic (a deficit in the billions of dollars) problems his government faces, Morsi served his own interests in brokering the ceasefire while increasing his domestic and international prestige. The intent and effects of his power grab immediately after the ceasefire was announced remain to be seen.

On the surface, the most recent Israel-Gaza encounter appears to have changed little in the overall Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet Israel may still see a long sought-after decrease in rocket attacks, weapons smuggling, and Islamist militancy. Hamas has already received promises that its people will move more freely and safely across Gaza’s borders. Egypt’s new government has proved itself capable of weathering a regional storm. Fatah has been pushed even further to the sidelines in Palestine. The key issues now will be implementation of the ceasefire, the continuation of peace talks towards a long-term solution, and maintenance of the tenuous calm that has been reached in the south. For the sake of Israelis and Gazans alike, the ceasefire must hold but be recognized as a temporary solution for which there needs to be a long-term replacement.

No comments:

Post a Comment