Friday, November 23, 2012

A fragile peace: in pursuit of a solution

After eight days of battle, hopes of a lasting truce rest with a new power axis in the Middle East, writes Ruth Pollard in Gaza City.

As shop owners pushed open their metal shutters and signs of life returned to the streets of Gaza, the scars of eight deadly days of open warfare between Israel and Hamas marked a landscape already disfigured by years of conflict.

More than 100 families sat in mourning, their grief mixed with profound relief that the ceasefire was holding after 24 hours, while government buildings around the coastal city lay in ruins, crushed by more than 1500 Israeli military strikes across Gaza.

Palestinians launched more than 1,400 missiles during the conflict, killing six Israelis.

Both sides claimed victory to their respective audiences: Israel said it had destroyed much of Gaza's terrorist infrastructure, including weapons factories, rocket launchers and tunnels for smuggling arms, along with the assassination of several key Hamas leaders.

And Hamas claimed a triumph - despite a high toll on Gaza's civilian population, Hamas and its affiliates were able to fire several long-range missiles towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, militants planted a bomb under a bus in Tel Aviv wounding more than 20 and it managed to get an easing of border controls into the truce deal with Israel announced late on Wednesday.

The Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, enjoyed broad support across Gaza for both the truce and its terms and people responded well to his demands that militant factions honour the ceasefire.

On the other hand, one poll conducted by Israeli television after the ceasefire announcement indicated the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to take the Israeli public with him, with 70 per cent saying they did not support a truce with Hamas.

But it was the realignment of regional powers on display in Gaza this week that proved most remarkable, showing that Hamas successfully pivoted away from its former backers Iran and Syria to embrace the Sunni coalition of Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf states. Amid Israel's aerial bombardment and a volley of hundreds of rockets fired by Palestinians militants into southern Israel, a seriesof senior ministers visited Gaza, including Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and Egypt's Prime Minister, Hesham Kandil.

Accompanying the Arab League's chief, Nabil al-Arabi, on a visit to Shifa Hospital as dozens of dead and injured arrived in a convoy of ambulances and private cars, Davutoglu told Gazans: "Your pain is our pain. Your destiny is our destiny and your future is our future."

There were questions for both sides too - how could Israel's Army, purportedly using some of the best military technology in the world, kill so many civilians, including 33 children, in "surgical" air strikes, including one that killed three generations of a family of 10?

And how had Hamas and the other militant factions operating in the Gaza Strip acquired missiles with enough range to threaten Israel's two major cities - Tel Aviv and Jerusalem?

"If the media aren't given a chance to ask a single question after an operation in which millions of Israelis were forced to sit in bomb shelters, that caused extensive property damage and produced psychological scarring that can't yet be assessed, we have a very big problem," one commentator wrote in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Gazans did not miss a beat when the ceasefire was announced. Dawn broke, and fishermen steered their boats out of the city's small harbour towards the horizon, hopeful of working their patch of the sea without the daily danger of artillery fire from Israel's navy boats.

But even though the truce has held for the first day, the conditions that led to the latest escalation remain. Gazans live under a partial land, sea and air blockade, imposed by Israel five years ago when Hamas forcibly took control of the strip after winning power from Fatah in the 2006 elections.

Egypt was a key part of that blockade, closing its Rafah border crossing with Gaza until May 28, 2011, when it began easing travel restrictions.

Israel has also eased the restrictions on goods into Gaza, but the entry of many key products such as building materials and medical equipment remain tightly controlled.

As a result, Gaza's economy is paralysed - export is almost entirely banned, the power supply is compromised and there is a growing and urgent water crisis. For those living under these conditions, the pressure is almost unbearable.

Israel's last major incursion, Operation Cast Lead, ran for 22 days from December 27, 2008, in which 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died.

Because of the unresolved conflict, many Israelis remain sceptical about what this latest ceasefire will bring, believing it may only buy a few months of quiet before the next round of rockets are fired into southern communities, forcing residents to flee again into their bomb shelters and safe rooms.

Gazans too are doubtful, but ever hopeful. For them, the end of this latest round of hostilities is just the beginning. The status quo is not even close to acceptable, they say.

"We are dying in Gaza," said Ashraf Shaqur, 41. "I am pleased the rockets have stopped, I am glad my family is safe, but now things have to change. We cannot remain under the siege forever."

To ask Gazans what they want from life is to hear a collection of achingly ordinary hopes and dreams: to visit family or study in the nearby West Bank, to access the medical care they need regardless of where it is provided, to legitimately buy the materials needed to build or repair their homes, to have safe drinking water and the hope of employment after university.

Many of the strip's 1.7 million people are refugees, the descendants of those who fled homes on the land that is now Israel during the 1948 war over the creation of the Jewish state.

More than 11,000 citizens were on the move again this week, after Israel dropped thousands of leaflets from the sky into several neighbourhoods warning residents to evacuate immediately and stipulating which streets were safe.

Many fled their homes, piling onto the back of carts drawn by donkeys with just their valuables and a small bag of clothes, aware the nearby border areas had been used entry points by Israeli soldiers during the ground invasion in the last Gaza war in 2008.

At one United Nations-run school that had been converted into a relief centre, extended families were sleeping up to 44 people to a small classroom, children crying in fear and adults running for cover each time a missile struck.

By the time the bloody conflict ended on Wednesday night, 156 Palestinians, including 103 civilians had been killed - of them 33 were children, 13 were women and three were journalists, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said.

At least 1000 Palestinians - 971 of them civilians - were wounded in the air strikes and artillery fire, including 247 children, 162 women and 12 journalists, who the centre says were deliberately targeted by Israel, a claim Israel denies.

Six Israelis died in the conflict and 240 were wounded, after militants in Gaza fired 1400 rockets into the country's south.

Many Israelis fled their homes during the conflict, unable to bear the constant rocket fire and red alert alarms that sent them flying into safe areas at all hours of the day and night.

The ceasefire deal, mediated in Cairo by President Mohammed Mursi and his spy chief Mohamed Shehata, included a promise from both sides to end hostilities and opened the possibility of relaxing border crossings that could ease the blockade - a key demand of all Gaza's militant factions.

On initial assessments, Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood, with Mursi at the helm, had passed the first real foreign policy test since they came to power, said the director of the Issam Fares institute for public policy and international affairs at the American University of Beirut, Rami Khouri. "For the first time we have Arab governments reflecting public opinion in their foreign policy, and this is very rare," Khouri said.

Mursi managed to do what his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, would not - balance the desire of the Egyptian people to confront Israel and support the Palestinians, while respecting US demands for a Hamas ceasefire.

Also striking, he said, was the role of regional players replacing global powers in mediation, further evidence that the movement of political Islam sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa was one to be engaged with, not feared.

"The US is still an important player but they do not drive agendas like they used to - so the US and the Europeans are going to have to recalibrate their policies here to reflect the new reality," Khouri said.

Mursi's role in bringing the eight-day conflict to an end was lauded by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

''I want to thank President Mursi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,'' she said.

''This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.''

While there is every reason to be sceptical that the truce will last, it is a different kind of agreement to the "calm for calm" deal negotiated in previous ceasefires, said an analyst with the International Crisis Group's Middle East program, Nathan Thrall. "The prior agreements have not fundamentally changed the nature of Gaza-Israel relations, where as this document … if it is implemented in a meaningful way, will make a difference to life in Gaza and change the calculations for militants in Gaza.''

Even small changes that result in the lifting or easing of restrictions - for Gaza's fishermen or for the farmers around the military buffer zone maintained by Israel that takes as much as 35 per cent of the usable farm land - could encourage Hamas to suppress the smaller militant groups who may be tempted to break the ceasefire, he said.

"We have a new Egypt that is a broker of this agreement - this president has more influence over Hamas and they do not fundamentally distrust him the way they did Mubarak.

"Their key role as implementers of the deal means this has more of a chance of being successful than the other agreements have been."

President Mursi was "highly motivated" to end the conflict as rapidly as possible, Thrall said, because a ground invasion from Israel would have been a disaster for Egyptians.

"His number one priority is his economy and this would have been threatened if Egyptians had taken to the streets and demanded an escalated military response against Israel."

Mursi is not only dependent on a multibillion-dollar International Monetary Fund loan, but also substantial aid from the US and Europe, all of which would be threatened by a deterioration in relations between Egypt and Israel, Thrall said.

"It was difficult for him because he has an ideological affinity and real bonds with Hamas and because Egypt perceives Israel to be the cause of this conflict."

There was another important development this week - the opening of indirect negotiations between the US and Hamas via Mursi, Thrall said.

"From Hamas's perspective they very much want to get around the economic blockade and the diplomatic blockade that affects their participation in political life in the West Bank - they believe the US alone has the power to give them this."

The fact that Hamas has been strengthened and the Palestinian Authority further weakened may draw the two warring factions together for the first time in five years, Thrall said.

"There are enormous obstacles, but there are more factors working in favour of reconciliation than there have been before," he said.

Egypt had emerged in this conflict as a very pragmatic regime, said Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"Israel thinks that all Muslim Brotherhood are anti-Semitic … but this is not the case.

"Egypt can induce Hamas to join with Fatah in some sort of agreement … and hopefully Israel will take advantage of this to get a more comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians," Maoz said.

"It is in the interests of Israel to have a Palestinian state next to it along 1967 lines, and this would include Gaza."

Peace is not based on love, but on mutual interests, Maoz said, and the interests of the Sunni Muslim coalition of the Saudis, the Gulf States, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan in containing Shiite Islam is in line with Israel's interests.

There is now a new axis of power in the Middle East anchored by Egypt and Turkey - both Muslim and democratic - and it is up to Israel to join that group and resolve the Palestinian issue, Maoz said.

Left out in the cold is the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who appears intent on going to the United Nations General Assembly next Thursday to seek enhanced status for Palestine.

"The Palestinian Authority is cash-strapped and it is already looking at severe instabilities in the West Bank," the International Crisis Group's Thrall said.

"It is only paying half salaries, it has zero credibility."

The US and some European governments are trying to convince Abbas to delay the resolution in the face of furious opposition from Israel.

But he is damned either way - Palestinians will lose all faith in him if he fails to go to the UN, while Israel and the US will punish the Palestinian Authority if he does.

Either way, the fundamentals that will influence any peace agreement - Israel's settlement expansion inside 1967 borders, its security concerns, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the borders - are as far from being resolved as they ever were.

Ruth Pollard - SMH

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Israel's Violence on Palestenians

Right to Defend itself

Israel has always cried 'holocaust' tears to the world while singing the old tune of "Defending itself and its citizens". How do they do it? By banning or killing international journalists by bribing their supportive governments. Palestine is destroyed as a State so is Gaza. Meanwhile the "chronically suffering Israel" has developed to a point it does not need Uncle Sam anymore, see their infrastructure, see their military development up to nuclear programs... and they are the eternal "poor" in need. -- --