Gaza truce; time for a settlement
A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has now been in effect since Wednesday, but how long this will last is anyone’s guess. The truce is certainly welcome and a chance for the two sides, as well as regional powers and the international community, especially the United States, to focus on brokering a peace agreement in the Middle East.
The fighting in Gaza, which began after Israel assassinated the military leader of Hamas, threatened to spiral out of control into a regional war and was certainly in nobody’s interest. Unfortunately, over the past two years the world has largely ignored the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, concentrating mainly on the Arab Spring; the lack of direct American involvement in the Middle East peace process has been particularly disappointing. Perhaps the Obama administration, fresh from re-election, will now be in a better position to play a more decisive role.
Egypt, to its credit, played an important role in negotiating the ceasefire, and hopefully it will monitor the truce to ensure it is adhered to. (Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi’s controversial decree on Thursday granting himself sweeping new powers, which mean his decisions cannot be revoked by any authority – including the judiciary, has, understandably, overshadowed Cairo’s positive contribution to the end of hostilities in Gaza).
The situation leading up to the conflict was indeed dire. This year alone about 700 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel; as US President Barack Obama pointed out, no sovereign nation would tolerate such a state of affairs. However, Israel, and in particular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, must assume a large part of responsibility for this latest conflict.
The Israeli economic blockade of Gaza has created immense hardship for the Palestinians and the continued illegal building of settlements in the West Bank has only made Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas look weak and irrelevant, thus strengthening Hamas.
The terms of the ceasefire are the following: Israel has agreed to end all hostilities in Gaza by sea, land and air, including incursions and the targeting of individuals; the Palestinians in Gaza have agreed to stop all hostilities against Israel, including rocket and border attacks. Furthermore, talks will now begin on opening crossings into Gaza and allowing the free movement of people and goods.
During the conflict Israel claimed to have targetted, through air strikes, 1,500 ‘terror sites’ (Israel’s description, not mine) including 30 senior militants, 980 underground rocket launchers and 140 smuggling tunnels. Hamas, on the other hand continued to fire rockets into southern Israel (about 95, a third of which were intercepted by an Israeli missile shield), and for the first time fired long-range rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
About 115 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, of which 56 were civilians, including children; 840 Palestinians were wounded, again including a number of children. Israel lost three civilians and dozens were wounded.
In the last war between Israel and Hamas in 2008-2009, 1,400 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians; Israel was condemned internationally, its security was not strengthened and Hamas emerged stronger after the conflict with more powerful weapons. Thankfully, this time around there was no Israeli ground invasion and a truce was established after about a week of conflict.
This ceasefire is obviously very fragile and Israel’s Defence Minister has already made it clear that the truce was not a formal agreement but a set of understandings. Ehud Barak told Israeli public radio: “The truce could last nine days or nine weeks or more but if it doesn’t hold, we know what to do and of course, we will consider the possibility of resuming our activity if there is any firing or provocations.”
In fact soon after the ceasefire took effect a Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli soldiers close to the Gaza border. The shooting on Friday reportedly happened around the no-go area surrounding the Gaza border fence.
Israel said a group of about 300 people had approached the fence and that some had attempted to break through. It said that trying to breach the Gaza fence in order to enter Israel amounted to breaking the truce while Hamas said the shooting itself was an Israeli violation of the ceasefire.
Both sides have gained nothing from this conflict and it is of utmost importance for the international community, especially the US and regional powers, to engage in a strong diplomatic process that has only one long term goal: the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state with guaranteed security for Israel.
US President Barack Obama must make the revival of the Middle East peace process a foreign policy priority of his second administration.
Furthermore, although Hamas has traditionally been close to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, countries such as Qatar, Egypt and Turkey have been engaging with this Islamic Palestinian movement and have shown to have a certain level of clout over it.
The Emir of Qatar recently visited Gaza and promised $400 million in much needed aid; he and the leaders of Egypt and Turkey should use their influence over Hamas to convince them to stop resorting to violence and to adopt a reconciliatory approach towards Israel.
There is too much at stake to continue with the status quo.