Hamas' leader in exile Khaled Meshaal speaks during a news
conference about a cease-fire agreement between Israel and
Gaza. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Triumphal Hamas celebrated a "victory" in their Gaza
stronghold today after a truce was declared with Israel, where
a sober reckoning of how the next round may go underscored the
total lack of trust between the two foes.
Palestinians and Israelis alike were relieved that their
eight-day conflict had come to an end without a bloody
invasion of the Gaza Strip. But on both sides there was a
foreboding that their ceasefire might not last very long.
"We are sceptical," said a senior Israeli government
official, who declined to be named. "But the Egyptians and
Americans have backed this deal, so if it falls apart they
know that we would have a legitimate reason to go in hard."
On the face of it, both Israel and the Islamist group Hamas,
which rules Gaza, can draw positive conclusions at the end of
a brutal clash that killed 162 Palestinians, including 37
children, and five Israelis.
Although Hamas lost its top military commander and suffered
serious hits to its infrastructure and weaponry, it has
nonetheless emerged with its reputation in the Arab world
significantly enhanced and its standing at home embellished.
Israel can take comfort from the fact it dealt painful blows
to its enemy, found a way to work with the Islamist
leadership of Egypt, and showed that it can defend itself
from a barrage of incoming missiles with its high-tech Iron
"No one is under the illusion that this is going to be an
everlasting ceasefire. It is clear to everyone it will only
be temporary," said Michael Herzog, a former chief of staff
at the Israeli ministry of defense.
"But there is a chance that it could hold for a significant
period of time, if all goes well," he told Reuters.
Israel and Hamas have been here before. In 2009, they pulled
apart after a 22-day conflict and it took many months before
Gaza militants felt strong enough to start firing rockets
again out of their tiny, impoverished enclave.
At the time, ordinary Gazans resented Hamas, accusing it of
instigating a devastating war and invasion that killed 1,400
Palestinians. Three years on, the mood was different and
thousands took to the streets to celebrate the ceasefire.
After years of isolation, a succession of Arab VIPs rushed to
the enclave to show their solidarity as Israeli warplanes
were striking their targets, and the leaders of Hamas were
treated with careful respect by Egypt - unthinkable in the
days of the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak.
"Hamas is in a stronger position than ever," said Gaza
political analyst Talal Okal, adding that he too did not
expect the truce to become a permanent fixture. "The
Palestinians must not stop preparing themselves for another
round," he added.
Hamas refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist and has
scorned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for seeking a
The Western-backed Abbas, who holds sway in the
Israeli-occupied West Bank, cut a lonely figure during the
crisis, seeing Hamas's credibility rise in the Arab world at
his own expense.
In contrast with wild jubilation in Gaza, a few hundred
residents in southern Israel took to the streets to denounce
the deal, fearing that after a brief pause they would once
more be the target of regular rocket attacks.
With a general election just two months away, the political
consensus of the last week immediately evaporated and
opposition figures swiftly laid into Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu for not using the mighty army he had positioned on
the Gaza borders.
"I think the goals of the operation weren't achieved," said
Shaul Mofaz, head of the centrist Kadima party.
"Israeli citizens expected something else. They expected a
reality in which the Israeli army forced a truce on Hamas.
Today (Egyptian President Mohamed) Mursi, with U.S. backing,
forced Israel to a ceasefire," he told Channel 1 television.
Netanyahu will put a very different spin on it.
He showed he could work with the Islamist Mursi, thereby
shoring up Israel's sagging relations with Cairo. He also
re-invigorated ties with U.S. President Barack Obama, who
gave him constant public support despite their famously bad
Moreover, he will point out that he set limited goals when he
launched the air offensive last week. He never vowed to
topple Hamas, but rather promised to cripple its
Although the Israeli military has declared its mission
accomplished, the public might be hard to convince.
"There was no decisive victory here, there is nothing so
dramatic that Israel can be proud of," said Giora Eiland, a
former National Security Adviser. "But the situation was
managed in the right way and it was clear that Israel enjoyed
certain international support."
Perhaps Israel's biggest winner was the Iron Dome interceptor
that had a 84 percent success rate against incoming missiles,
according to the military, almost certainly saving many lives
and reducing the pressure for any escalation.
Politicians and military experts are likely to take a much
tougher look at the role of the air force, with criticism
already surfacing that it was over cautious in its targeting
for fear of repeating the mass casualties seen in the
"The Iron Dome has proved itself to be a game changer," said
Yohanan Plesner, a Kadima politician who sits on parliament's
foreign affairs and defence committee.
"But on the offensive side, the more we are surgical and
cautious then the harder it is to achieve the goals of
long-term calm. The more we limit ourselves, the less of a
price Hamas has to pay," he told Reuters.
Although Hamas certainly suffered significant losses, it also
had much to boast about to its own people - particularly the
fact that it managed for the first time to send missiles
flying towards both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
"Israel won't think of challenging us like this ever again,"
said Mohammed al-Ghazaleh, firing a deafening burst from his
Kalashnikov rifle to celebrate the truce in Gaza city.
But such thinking is almost certainly a miscalculation that
already sows the seeds for the next confrontation.
- Crispian Balmer