A Return to Square One
Article posted on The Guardian, January 19, 2009
On Saturday evening, Israel announced not a ceasefire – in the sense of an agreement between the parties to end a conflict – but a decision that its forces will unilaterally halt their fire. It said it would await the Hamas response, any timetable for a withdrawal of Israeli forces being contingent on an end to rocket fire from Gaza.
Yesterday, the resistance movements in Gaza, including Hamas, unilaterally announced a cessation of military action for one week, by the end of which time they demand that all Israeli forces should have departed Gaza. Implicit in this initiative is the threat that, were they to fail to leave within seven days, Hamas and the other groups would resume the firing of rockets into Israel.
At one level, this unilateralist outcome resolves none of the core problems that were at the source of the conflict in the first place. Hamas remains in control in Gaza; its military capacity has not been substantially degraded: 40 missiles were fired at Israel on Saturday, and at least a further 16 were launched before Hamas announced the ceasefire yesterday. And nothing has been settled in terms of the opening of the crossings from Israel into Gaza, or in respect of the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza. The release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli captive, has not advanced.
Effectively, Israel tore up the Egyptian ceasefire proposals and its investment in mediation, leaving a sidelined President Mubarak on Saturday angrily disavowing the agreement between Israel and the US for ending the flow of weapons via Egypt to Hamas. It is a messy, ambiguous “end”. It is, in this sense, a return to square one: the situation at the end of the last ceasefire. Israel’s declaration therefore contains the potential for further conflict. The core of the dispute for Hamas has been the siege and the restrictions on the crossings; and for Israel, the rockets. Neither has been settled. There are two distinct and separate decisions to halt hostilities, but no understandings to underpin a lasting quiet – and no mechanism to deal with friction on the ground.
At another level, however, the 22-day war has changed the parameters in the region: it has produced an unparalleled, overt challenge to Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the formal structures of Arab political power. The Doha informal meeting of heads of state on Friday gave legitimacy to the Palestinian resistance movements, called for direct action to isolate Israel and pronounced the Arab initiative to normalise relations with Israel in return for withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 to be “dead”.
None of these decisions has any formal status, but they represent a striking and open attack on the Egyptian and Saudi claims of primacy over Palestinian affairs. It heralds the beginning of a bitter struggle of the Doha-Syria axis versus the Saudi-Egyptian alliance for control over the future of the region.
Mubarak struck back: on Sunday, in a summit held in Egypt, and attended by the UN secretary general and European leaders, Mubarak was back in the chair. It was Israel and the US who were absent. This is likely to infuriate the Israelis, as Mubarak no doubt intends, but the internationalising of the Gaza ceasefire will also complicate an already fragile situation.
All of these separate initiatives – Israeli, American and Egyptian – have as a primary aim an agreement from which one of the main protagonists, Hamas, is excluded. None of this bodes well. It resembles the choreography for a further round of conflict.
Another aspect of the last few weeks of conflict has wider significance here in the region too. The uncompromising use of firepower by Israeli forces, the resolve to use this overwhelming power at the expense of huge numbers of civilian casualties and of infrastructure, has come against a backdrop of almost universal Israeli domestic approval. The war has touched on deep impulses, evoking strong convictions of Israeli righteousness among the public, and with it, a thirst for unequivocal images of defeat in Gaza. Israeli leaders will draw vindication from this. In domestic public relations terms, it is, so far, a clear victory for its architects.
In the longer run, however, things are not so clear. The uncompromising nature of the assault is having a profound impact. Muslims saw the Israeli mood as drawing on an ancient narrative: a desire for an unmitigated, religious victory. Israel will point to its statistics of perceived success, but the other side will see not the hollow counting of damage inflicted but an archetypal image of a heroic Muslim stand against overwhelming military odds. “Victory” may look rather different a few months from now.