Saturday, January 17, 2009

Israel declares a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza

It has now been 22 days since Israel launched its military operation against Hamas in Gaza on December 27, 2008. It was never clear how the fighting would end, but we may now be seeing the beginning of the endgame--though one has to say that tentatively.

Today Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire to take effect at midnight (Greenwich Mean Time).
BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen says the question now is whether Hamas decides to lick its wounds and regroup - or whether it gambles on dragging Israel into a war of attrition.
So what will this unilateral cease-fire mean concretely? Hard to know, but here are some immediate reactions and speculations.

=> This has been a war of terrible dilemmas, about which it has been impossible to feel confident or unconflicted. Israel was certainly justified in responding to the resumption of Hamas rocket attacks against Israeli civilian communities, which have been hit by thousands of these rockets over the years. (And the range of Hamas's rockets has been increasing, as Michael Walzer pointed out so they don't pose a static threat.) But the fact that something is, in principle, justified doesn't necessary make it a good idea, and in this case the dangers and drawbacks were pretty obvious.

Among other things, it wasn't clear whether and how military action could compel Hamas to cease those attacks, and no serious person expected either that this operation would break Hamas's control over Gaza or that Israel had any desire to re-occupy Gaza. At the same time, the longer this fighting went on, the more it increased death and suffering for Palestinian civilians in Gaza (and for Israelis, though Israel is both more concerned and more able than Hamas to protect its civilians). So Israel had both moral and practical reasons not to want to get sucked into an open-ended war.

As early as the first week of fighting, accordingly, several people--including David Grossman and my friend Gershon Shafir--proposed that Israel should unilaterally declare a cease-fire and essentially dare Hamas to respond. As Gershon put it in concluding his piece:
The strongest argument in favor of such an approach is that all the available alternatives--including the currently stated Israeli policy of seeking ‘to educate’ or eliminate Hamas--lead nowhere and can only yield disastrous and counterproductive results, along with unnecessary human suffering. Israel has made its point. Now it should know when to stop.
Something like that may be happening now, but after the weeks that have passed, the circumstances may be different.

Up to now, neither Israel nor Hamas has been willing to accept an unconditional cease-fire. The public position of the Israeli government has been that any cease-fire would have to be "durable and sustainable." It hasn't been entirely clear to observers like me what they meant by this in practice, but at least part of what the Israeli government seemed to be looking for were post-conflict arrangements that would make it more rather then less difficult for Hamas to smuggle more advanced weaponry into Gaza. Hamas, for its part, wanted conditions that would relieve Israeli pressure on its operations and on Gaza in general, allow it to claim victory, and increase its public support among Palestinians vis-a-vis Fatah.

But it would appear that decision-makers on both sides have been finding increasing reasons--and perhaps facing increasing pressures--to halt the fighting.

=> According to informed analysis from various sources, from the very beginning there has been some division of opinion within the Israeli government about when and under what conditions to stop. As Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff reported in Haaretz earlier this week ("Who is really winning the war in the Gaza Strip?):
Defense Minister Ehud Barak is very fond of marathon consultation sessions. This week he invited to his office a group of reserve generals who all retired from active duty in recent years. All but one advised Barak to end the operation quickly and withdraw from Gaza before things started to get more complicated. The most effective Israeli deterrence, they said, had already been achieved by the end of last week. When Barak asked just when, in their opinion, Israel ought to pull out of Gaza, most of the participants answered: Yesterday. This week, the defense minister was convinced that the operation had exhausted its usefulness.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, too, who at the operation's outset had waged fierce battles with Barak over questions of substance, public credit and political dividends, now holds the same view. But the lousy relations among the Livni-Barak-[Prime Minister] Olmert triumvirate have created a balance of fear: None of them wants to be painted as the soft "dove" throwing a wrench in the military campaign and dictating a swift end to it.
This triumvirate, including Olmert, seem to have reached the collective conclusion that enough is enough.

Some have speculated that they wanted to take this step before Barack Obama's inauguration, or perhaps just before something went terribly wrong. It is also possible that the Israeli government has received international assurances, confidential or semi-public, that some serious measures will be taken to control the flow of more advanced weaponry to Hamas. It may mean something that in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's statement on Friday calling for a unilateral cease-fire declaration--which he delivered standing next to Hamas's bitter enemy Mahmoud Abbas--Moon spoke explicitly of the need for a "durable and sustainable" cessation of violence, since that phrase has become a diplomatic code. (Or, on the other hand, that may mean nothing in particular.)

=> In the meantime, there were also signs that elements in the Hamas leadership were starting to feel increasingly shaken and threatened by the Israeli assault, enough that they felt some urgency about stopping the fighting.

Up to a point, Hamas could presumably regard the death and suffering of Palestinians at Israeli hands as a propaganda bonanza from which it could only benefit. But Hamas's own military and organizational apparatus are considerably more vulnerable to Israeli attack than, say, Hezbollah's. All during the war between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006, for example, Hezbollah could continue to rain thousands of medium-range Iranian rockets on northern Israel, turning cities like Haifa into ghost towns. In the current round of fighting in Gaza, by comparison, Hamas has continued to fire rockets at Israel, but in dwindling numbers.

That may help explain why at least some Hamas figures gradually began to express interest in a cease-fire proposal worked out by the Egyptian government--which is no friend of Hamas. Early on in this conflict,
Egypt presented [Hamas] with a cease-fire proposal that, at first glance, seemed to stand no chance of being accepted: an immediate, unconditional cease-fire, entry into negotiations over a new hudna ("truce" - during which the cease-fire would be maintained, in the absence of a determination as to when the border crossings would be opened) and, in the third stage, a renewal of the talks between Fatah and Hamas that would lead to the formation of a unity government and require a Palestinian Authority presence at the border crossings. Then, and only then, would the Rafah crossing be opened - one of Hamas' prime objectives in this war. The Egyptians were essentially telling the organization that the crossing would remain closed for many more months.

Several times during the past 10 days, Hamas announced that the Egyptian formula was unacceptable because it hurt Palestinian interests. Two days ago, the tone changed. Salah al-Bardawil, the Hamas-Gaza representative to the Cairo talks, held a press conference during which he praised the Egyptian efforts to obtain a cease-fire. The Hamas representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, made similar statements. Bardawil even went so far as to emphasize that the Egyptian initiative is the only one the organization was considering, thereby dismissing all other mediation efforts, including those of Qatar and Turkey.
But in these matters there may be some disagreement between the Gaza-based portions of the Hamas leadership and the top leadership based in Damascus, who are presumably willing to fight to the last Gazan. As Harel & Issacharoff reported this morning:
In a series of blows during the past 24 hours, the most severe since the Israel Defense Forces operation began in the Gaza Strip 20 days ago, Hamas was brought very close to surrender.

It is unlikely that we will see white flags, because the group recognizes that this would have a devastating effect on its image. But the Israeli military pressure has destroyed most of the Palestinian defenses in the heart of Gaza City, a day after the group had to agree in principle to the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire a deal it is not very happy with. [....]

The latest move has is risks. The IDF is constantly concerned that a single mistake may lead to mass killing of Palestinian civilians, or a surprise attack by Hamas that may affect public opinion in Israel. This nearly happened yesterday when UNRWA facilities were hit. [....]

Meanwhile it seems that at least the Hamas leadership in Gaza has began to fathom the seriousness of its position. Two Hamas leaders in the Strip, Razi Hamad and Ahmed Yusuf, accused the group's leadership in Damascus of "bringing a terrible disaster on Gaza."

The two are considered members of the pragmatic wing of the party, and charged the Damascus-based leadership with making a terrible mistake in ordering Hamas to foil the extension of the cease-fire agreement with Israel in December.

However, in Damascus it is not clear that the message has been received. Ramadan Shalah, head of the Islamic Jihad, told Al Jazeera that the Palestinians will continue their resistance in Gaza and the city will not surrender because "victory is imminent."

The head of the Hamas politburo, Khaled Meshal, who is central in the decision that led to the events in the Strip, spoke in Damascus last night of a Palestinian "victory in Gaza." [....]
What all this means--assuming, of course, that the analysis is accurate--is that what Hamas will actually do in response to the Israeli cease-fire declaration is not easy to predict. So we don't now what happens next, even in the short run.

I hope that Hamas finds some politically viable way to accept a cease-fire. This would bring the fighting and destruction to a stop--at least for the moment, and perhaps even for a while. Then it will become possible to assess the human and material costs of this mini-war and to consider its possible long-term political consequences.

I don't pretend to know at this point what those will be (even assuming that fighting doesn't simply resume soon, which it might). But I would be willing to offer one surmise. It has become a standard cliché among journalists, pundits, and other analysts to proclaim that one political consequence of this blow-up will be to strengthen support for Hamas among Palestinians. Maybe, but I'm inclined to doubt it, and it certainly doesn't strike me as inevitable. I have no doubt that, for many Palestinians, these events have further inflamed anger and hatred against Israel. But once the aftermath begins to sink in, some of those same Palestinians might also conclude that Hamas helped to bring "a terrible disaster on Gaza" with nothing to show for it--which is in fact what happened.

Of course, if the Hamas leadership makes a calculation along the lines I have just suggested, that might also give them an incentive to reject a cease-fire right now.

But all this is speculation. I guess we'll see. Meanwhile, let's hope for the best. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis deserve this unending misery.

Jeff Weintraub

UPDATE - Sunday, January 18: Hamas and other "Palestinian resistance factions" allied with it have responded by declaring a temporary cease-fire in Gaza. According to the BBC News report:
A statement read by a Hamas spokesman said the group would hold fire for a week to give Israel time to withdraw its forces from the Gaza Strip.

The move came hours after a unilateral Israeli ceasefire came into effect. [....]

Many people are hoping that a ceasefire will last, but no-one on either side of the border will be surprised if the fighting starts up again, our correspondent adds. [....]

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