The Gaza ceasefire, unlike a similar ceasefire achieved after Operation Cast Lead four years ago, is an event that has a likely significance far beyond ending the violence after eight days of murderous attacks. It is just possible that it will be looked back upon as a turning point in the long struggle between Israel and Palestine.
Many have talked about “the fog of war”, but it pales besides the “the fog of truce making”, and in our media-infected air, the outcomes are already being spun in all possible directions. Supporters of each side give their own spin allowing both to proclaim “victory”. But as with the violent phases of the conflict, it is clarifying to distinguish the more persuasive claims and interpretations from those that are less persuasive. What follows is one such attempt at such clarification.
It remains too soon to tell whether the ceasefire will hold for very long, and if it does, whether its central provisions will be implemented in good faith. At this early moment, the prospects are not promising. Israel has already used excessive violence to disperse Palestinians who gathered on the Gaza side of the border to celebrate what they thought was their new freedom to venture close to the border. Israeli security forces, after firing warning shots, killed one Palestinian civilian and wounded another 20 others with live ammunition. The Israeli explanation was that it had given warnings, and since there had been no agreement implementing the ceasefire, the old regime of control was still in place. It is notable that Hamas protested, but made no moves to cancel the ceasefire or to retaliate violently, but the situation remains tense and fragile.
Putting aside the precariousness of the current situation and the accompanying uncertainties, it still seems useful to look at the process by which the ceasefire was brought about, how this sheds light on the changing dynamics of the conflict itself, as well on some underlying shifts in the regional and global balances of forces.
First of all, the role and outlook of the Arab governments was far more pro-active than in the past interludes of intensified Israel/Palestine violence. During the just-concluded attacks, several prominent foreign ministers from the region visited Gaza and were received by the Hamas governing authorities, thus undermining the longstanding Israeli effort to isolate Hamas and exclude it from participation in diplomacy. Egypt played the critical role in brokering the agreement, and despite the Muslim Brotherhood affiliation of its leaders. Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian President, emerged as the key diplomatic figure, widely praised by the West for his “pragmatism”, which can be understood as meaning his capacity to address the concerns of both sides without intruding his own pro-Palestinian outlook. Indeed, such a brokered agreement inverted what the Americans have brought to the table in past negotiations, a pretension of balance, a reality of partisanship.
Secondly, the text of the agreement implicitly acknowledged Hamas as the governing authority of Gaza, and thereby gives it, at least temporarily, a greatly enhanced status among Palestinians, regionally, and internationally. Its claim to be a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people has now become plausible, making Hamas a political actor that has for the moment been brought in from the terrorist cold. While Hamas remains formally “a terrorist organisation” in the eyes of Israel, the United States, and Europe, throughout this just-concluded feverish effort to impose a ceasefire on the conflict, Hamas was treated as “a political actor” with sovereign authority to speak for the people in Gaza. Such a move represents a potential sea change, depending on whether there is an effort to build on the momentum achieved or a return to the futile Israeli/US policy of excluding Hamas from diplomatic channels by insisting that it be classified as a terrorist organisation. Correspondingly, the Palestinian Authority, and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, have been awkwardly sidelined, overshadowed, and made to appear irrelevant in the midst of this latest terrible ordeal affecting the Palestinian people.
Thirdly, Israel accepted as integral conditions of the ceasefire two sets of obligations toward the people of Gaza that it would never have agreed to before it launched its Pillar of Defence operation: (1) agreeing not to engage in “incursions and targeting of individuals” and (2) agreeing to meet to arrange for the “opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and the transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents free movement, and targeting residents in border areas”. If implemented by Israel, this means the end of targeted assassinations and the lifting of the blockade that has tormented Gaza for more than five years. These are major setbacks for the Israeli policy. The political acceptance by Tel Aviv of a prohibition on targeted assassinations, if respected, renounces a favourite tactic of Israeli governments for many years, which although generally regarded as illegal was still practiced by Israel with impunity. Indeed, the most dramatic precipitating event in the recent controversial unfolding crisis timeline was the killing of Ahmed Jabari on November 14, a military/political leader of Hamas, who at the very time was negotiating a truce relating to cross-border violence.
Fourthly, the role of the United States, while still significant, was considerably downsized by these other factors, especially the need to allow Egypt to play the main role as arbiter. This suggests a regionalisation of diplomacy that diminishes the importance and seriously erodes the legitimacy of extra-regional interference. This is bad news for the Israelis. Turkey, also now a sharp critic of Israel, as well as Egypt played a significant role in defusing the escalating crisis. There exists a revealing gap between the US insistence all along that Israel’s use of force was fully justified because every country has the right to defend itself and the ceasefire text that placed restrictions on future violence as applicable to both sides. After the ceasefire, the United States must make a defining choice: Either continue its role as Israel’s unconditional enabler or adopt a more “pragmatic” approach to the conflict in the manner of Morsi. If it remains primarily an enabler, its diplomatic role is likely to diminish rapidly, but if it should adopt a balanced approach, it might still be able to take the lead in establishing a real peace process that considers the rights of both sides under international law. To make such a shift credible, President Obama would have to make a major speech to the American people explaining why it is necessary to choose between partisanship and diplomacy in reshaping its future relationship to the conflict. However sensible such a shift would be both for American foreign policy but also for the stability of the region, it is highly unlikely to happen. There is nothing in Obama’s resume that suggests a willingness to go to the people to circumvent a dysfunctional outlook in the US Congress.
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Fifthly, the United Nations was made to seem almost irrelevant, despite the presence of the Secretary General in the region during the diplomatic endgame. Ban Ki Moon did not help matters by seeming to echo the sentiments coming from Washington, calling attention almost exclusively to Israeli defensive rights. The UN could provide more neutral auspices for future negotiations if it were to disentangle itself from Western geopolitics. To do this would require withdrawing from participation in the Quartet, and pledging a commitment to a sustaining and just peace for both peoples. As with United States, it is highly unlikely that the UN would make such a move, at least not without permission from Washington. As with Obama, there is nothing in the performance of Ban Ki Moon as Secretary General that suggests the willingness and capacity to act independently when the stakes are high.
Sixthly, the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire was a call from the Gaza streets for Palestinian unity, symbolised by the presence of Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine flags all flying in harmonious co-existence. As the New York Times commented, “a rainbow not visible here in years”. If Palestinian unity holds, and becomes a practical reality, including elections throughout Occupied Palestine, it may turn out that the ceasefire is more than a temporary tense truce, but is a new beginning in the long march toward Palestinian justice.
Defeat for Israel
All in all, the outcome of Operation Pillar of Defence was a resounding defeat for Israel in at least three respects: Despite the pounding of Gaza for eight days and the threat of a ground invasion, Hamas did not give in to Israeli demands for a unilateral ceasefire; the military capabilities of Gaza rockets exhibited a far greater capacity than in the past to inflict damage throughout the whole of Israel including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which suggests that in any future recurrence of major violence the destructive capabilities at the disposal of Gaza will become even greater; and the Israeli politics of promoting the Palestinian Authority as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people while refusing to deal with Hamas was dealt a heavy, perhaps fatal, blow.
There is one chilling slant being given by Israeli officials to this attack on Gaza. It is brazenly being described as “a war game” designed to rehearse for an impending attack on Iran. In the words of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, “Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.” Considering that at least 160 Gazans were killed, 1,000 wounded, and many more traumatised, this is, or should be, a shocking admission of intent to commit crimes against humanity. It should at least prompt the UN Human Rights Council to appoint a fact-finding mission to assess the allegations of criminal conduct during the military attack. In effect, the situation demands a Goldstone 2 report, but this time with the political will to follow through, once the incriminating findings are reported.
These developments will themselves be affected by the pervasive uncertainties that make it likely that the ceasefire will be a short truce rather than a definitive turn from violence to diplomacy. Will the parties respect the ceasefire? Israel has often made international commitments that are later completely abandoned, as has been the case with dismantling the numerous “outposts” (that is, “settlements” unlawful even under Israeli law) or in relation to the commitment to settle the “final status” issues associated with the Oslo Framework within five years.
It is not encouraging that Israeli officials are already cynically telling the media that they agreed to nothing “beyond the immediate cessation of hostilities”. The undertakings of the text are thus minimised as “talking points” rather than agreed commitments that lack only mechanisms for implementation. If Israel refuses to give effect to the agreed stoppage of targeted assassinations and does not move to end the blockade in good faith, it will not be surprising to see the rockets flying again.
The Palestinian Authority is now poised to regain some of its lost ground by seeking recognition by the UN General Assembly of its status as “a non-member state” on November 29, 2013, a move being fiercely resisted by Tel Aviv and Washington. It is probably too much to expect a softening of this diplomacy. Any claim of Palestinian statehood, even if only of symbolic significance, seems to threaten deeply Israel’s posture of agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state in the abstract as an outcome of negotiations while doing everything in its power to oppose all Palestinian efforts to claim statehood.
Such speculations must be conditioned by the realisation that as the clock ticks the international consensus solution to the conflict, an independent sovereign Palestine, is slipping out of the realm of the feasible. The situation of prolonged occupation has altered the demography and the expectations of the Israelis. With as many 600,000 unlawful settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem, no foreseeable Israeli government would survive if it agreed to any arrangement that required even a small percentage of those settlers to leave. On the Palestinian side, no arrangement would be sustainable without the substantial reversal of the settlement phenomenon. So long as this thousand pound gorilla strides freely, attaining a genuine peace based on the international consensus of two states for two peoples seems an exercise in wishful thinking.
At the same time, history has shown us over and over again that “the impossible” happens, impossible in the sense that it is an outcome that informed observers rejected as “possible”. It happened when European colonialism was defeated, and again when the Soviet internal and external empire suddenly disintegrated, and then when the apartheid regime was removed. The Palestinian destiny continues to seem entrapped in such a foreclosed imaginary, and yet we have learned from history that the struggles of oppressed peoples can on occasion achieve the unforeseeable. It is just barely possible that this latest display of Palestinian steadfastness in the face of the Israeli operation, together with the greater democratic accountibility to its own citizens of Israel’s neigbours, will give rise to a sequence of events that alters the equations of regional and global power just enough to finally give peace a chance.