Gaza ceasefire: Need to break Mid-East's destructive cycle

A Hamas police officer is hugged by a Palestinian man after they returned to their destroyed police headquarters in Gaza City

The overwhelming feeling in Gaza On Wednesday night was relief.

Sure, there may have been lots of lots of celebratory gunfire in the streets - Hamas supporters are particularly jubilant because, in their lexicon, they have forced their mighty neighbour into a humiliating ceasefire.

But most Gazans I have met over the last week will be relieved that the constant, overwhelming Israeli aerial bombardment has ended and there will be, for now, no ground invasion.

You can feel the palpable lifting of that burden among Gazan colleagues. This is such a small densely populated stretch of land that few areas have escaped the impact - direct or indirect - of Israeli bombing in recent days.

In the BBC Gaza office, that feeling was most tangibly felt on the first day of this conflict when Omar, the 11-month-old son of our cameraman Jihad Misharawi, was killed when a missile hit his home. It was a pointless, terrible tragedy that deeply affected Jihad's colleagues who live and work here in these testing conditions.

What has shocked me most over the last eight days - during which I have reported exclusively from Gaza, with BBC colleagues complementing in Israel - is the appallingly high number of children killed and injured.

I saw four children under the age of 10 buried amid the rubble of a house when it was hit by a huge Israeli missile. Israel initially acknowledged making a mistake, but later clarified its position, saying it meant to hit the house, but that its intended target - a senior Hamas commander - was not there. The four children and several other civilians were there and were killed.

Ceasefire deal

  • Israel to end all hostilities on Gaza Strip by sea, land and air, including incursions and the targeting of individuals
  • All Palestinian factions in Gaza to stop all hostilities against Israel, including rocket and border attacks
  • Within 24 hours of ceasefire, Gaza Strip crossings to be opened allowing free movement of people and goods
  • Egypt to receive assurances from both sides that they will abide by the deal, and will follow up any reports it has been broken

If the events of the last week (and 2006 and 2008-9) are not to be repeated, a lasting ceasefire is paramount and a permanent solution to improving the daily lives of more the one and a half million Gazans must be put into place.

It is a destructive cycle.

After previous conflicts, it went something like this: Gaza would be allowed to rebuild its institutions and infrastructure; but, with time, as people became increasingly frustrated with the Israeli blockade, Palestinian militants would fire more and more rockets into Israel; Israel would respond with overwhelming military force, and much of what had been built up was destroyed.

That, surely, must not be a scenario that Gaza and the surrounding communities of southern Israel have to face again.

Israel demands security, and Gaza demands the freedom to flourish economically and breathe - irrespective, arguably, of the wider arguments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Everyone involved in brokering the deal last night is talking of the need for a "durable" and "lasting" agreement.

The problem is that, on the face of it, we are no closer to that reality than was the case before the recent outbreak of rocket fire from Gaza, which precipitated Israel's initial attack last Wednesday and a week of almost incessant air strikes.

Israel's leaders certainly looked glum, rather than relieved or satisfied when they announced their side of the ceasefire agreement last night.

Israeli 'win'
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press at his Jerusalem office on November 21, 2012. Mr Netanyahu may have come under intense pressure not to launch a ground invasion

It could, though, be argued that Israel has "scored more points" than the Islamists from Hamas in the last week.

The assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas military supremo, and a handful of other top militants is a huge blow to Hamas.

Indeed securing, from Israel, a promise that targeted assassinations will stop has been one of Hamas's main demands in agreeing a truce.

Also, Israel has proved that its Iron Dome rocket defence system is a highly effective (if equally expensive) mechanism of defending Israeli towns and cities from the various missiles in the militants' arsenals.

Israel has always portrayed the decision to attack Gaza as a last resort to protect its people and towns from rocket attack.

In the initial stages, that stance was wholeheartedly supported by Israel's main allies, who wholeheartedly backed Israel's right to self-defence.

But the same allies made it abundantly clear such unequivocal backing would not extend to a ground invasion - a repetition of Operation Cast Lead in 2007-2008, in which more than 1,000 Gazans were killed.

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will win many plaudits in the West for his decision not to send in the tanks and troops, but last night it was apparent that, in reaching that decision, he had come under extraordinary international pressure, and it was not wholeheartedly agreed within his coalition government.

Mr Netanyahu has an election to fight at the start of 2013 and, in deciding to strike a deal with Hamas, he may have already cast his mind to other "battles".

Egypt's score
President Mohammed Mursi attends a meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the presidential palace in Cairo on 21 November 2012 Mohammed Mursi was instrumental in bringing about the ceasefire

The other party who might be waking up this morning to the sound of congratulatory phone calls from global leaders is Mohammed Mursi, the new Egyptian president.

It was he who brought Hamas to the table and persuaded the militants to stop the rocket fire and to sue for a ceasefire. Egypt is again a major "player".

It is through Egypt that a succession of senior Arab and Turkish leaders went to talk to and show their support for Gaza (and therefore Hamas).

After going "cold" on the new government in Cairo barely a few months ago, Washington relied heavily on President Mursi this week to help secure this deal.

US President Barack Obama, who spoke directly to Mr Mursi many times in recent days, has already signalled his appreciation, as have other Western governments.

They are beginning to "get" the importance of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt and its pivotal role in coaxing Hamas away from its reliance on less stable, erratic regimes especially Iran.

Palestinians divided

If Mr Mursi is the "winner", the "loser" is definitely the Palestinian [Fatah] President, Mahmoud Abbas.

Ismael Haniya of Hamas welcomed the stream of regional leaders in Gaza.

Even before the crisis, the emir of Qatar had made a highly symbolic visit to the Gaza Strip - promising hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Hamas regime as he left.

Mahmoud Abbas tried to get involved, but the problem for him (and arguably for all Palestinians in the long run) is that he and the Palestinian Authority are increasingly less relevant in Gaza.

The violent schism that led to a breakdown in the relationship between the Palestinian political factions still has not been healed. The gulf between the West Bank and Gaza is as wide as ever.

All Mr Abbas got for his troubles was more pressure from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to drop his bid at the UN next week in which he is seeking non-member observer state status for the Palestinians.

It is a move opposed by Israel and its allies and also by Hamas (for different reasons), but many observers would not be surprised that in agreeing to the Gaza deal, Israel quietly "insisted" that Mr Abbas drop his plans to go to the UN - we shall see.

Unsustainable situation

There is no guarantee, of course, that the ceasefire in Gaza will hold - still less that life will become any more tolerable for its 1.7 million inhabitants or the thousands of Israelis who live under the very real threat of rocket fire from the militants.

The current situation is unsustainable - that much is abundantly clear. When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a succession of global leaders urge the belligerents to keep their ceasefire pledges and to show "maximum restraint'', crossing your fingers and hoping the "cycle" does not start all over is not enough.

Tangible progress must be made when discussions now begin to ease Israel's blockade of Gaza (or restrictions as the Israelis prefer to call them). Fishing rights, the ability to cultivate all their farmland and the movement of goods and people are rights that Gazans expect like any other people.

Equally once the noise of celebration subsides, Hamas political leaders must assume their own responsibilities. They know that, if the militants rearm, if more heavy weapons are smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt and further afield, Israel will not tolerate the situation.

It is not normal, not acceptable, that rocket fire resumes on southern Israel, and the consequences must be crystal-clear for any militants who grow frustrated with a lack of political progress in coming months or years.

It is a tall order, and many expect this ceasefire deal like many previous ones to eventually disintegrate. It is the responsibility of Hamas, Israel and the wider world to ensure the "cycle" is finally broken.

UPDATE (12 March 2013): A draft report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that Omar Mashhrawi, the 11-month-old son of a BBC journalist in Gaza, may have been killed by a Palestinian rocket, not an Israeli one.

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