A Return to Square One

Alastair Crooke

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.

One Comment

  1. revjobarker wrote:

    As odd as this demise/embarrassment of Egypt/US/Saudi falling back in the line…this IS I believe the straw that will cause the M.E. to finally stand up for their own again…not bowing to U.S./ISRAEL disruption they have overtly or tacitly accepted…Prince Turki al-Faisal has a statement on the CNN newsrunner…coming up about every several minutes calling for justice for Palestine, God Bless Him…& Turkey who cut off ties/trade, as did Syria, Qatar? Boycotting Israel Must Be Applauded & Spread Worldwide…the only thing Israel stops for is $$$…unless they get the chance to kill every single Palestinian..and, for a short while, many of us were terrified @ the horrors & war crimes Israel was getting away with right in front of the whole World…who is on their feet for Palestine..still…boycott & divestment will hurt Israel the most…incl. tourism…one of their lily-white “Israel” big $$ boons…THIS IS THE TIME,RIGHT NOW, TO DEMAND ISRAEL REMOVE ALL INCL. ANY GUARDS/TROOPS/CHECKPOINTS ETC. BACK TO 1967 borders…AND,theU.N. MUST CHANGE IT’S CHARTER THAT STATES U.S. OR ANY OTHER ENTITY SHOULD NOT BE ENABLED TO STOP THE VOTE NO ONE ENTITY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO DETERMINE POLICY W/O A MAJORITY…MANY DIED WHILE U.S. & ISRAEL
    weapons that from a wound..begins bleeding in all organs & they died horribly…These are crimes done at close range in Gaza…these are a massacre of innocents war crimes, genocide–Israel/the ZIONISTS HAVE BECOME THE NAZI’S of Palestine…& an Israel that was never theirs on land given away by Europeans to get the …dirty Jews off their streets…Hubris that they sit there silent or backing Israel…??Worried about Obama?? Well, Obama buttered his cookie… Olmert, sleaze that he is, got the first call made by Odbama, then Abbas, etc. Obama has angered & misled many of us whom he courted for a better world…then he hired all Israeli hawks toer his cabinet…His 1st call rang our bell!! We will never forgive until this is rightous, Hamas is not a terrorist group…they are rightous freedom fighters…I have Cherokee Indian blood..we know American aggression still to this day…revjobarker///thank you for the Conflicts Forum..Peace & Blessings on you & Palestine!!!

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