Middle East

Opportunities and expectations from Gaza-Israel ceasefire

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi in Cairo. 21 Nov 2012
Image caption US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi in Cairo

This long-awaited truce was not announced by the two parties that have been locked into a cycle of violence: Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas.

Instead it was Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamal Amr and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who gave a joint news conference after talks in Cairo.

Egypt and the Americans were both key to the understanding that was drawn up.

Cairo has historically acted as a go-between for Israel - with which it signed the 1979 peace treaty - and Hamas, which governs Gaza.

However the handling of this crisis was a test for the new president, Mohammed Mursi, who comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, the organisation from which Hamas stems.

Egypt's new ambassador to Tel Aviv was swiftly withdrawn at the start of the Israeli military offensive. Cairo led calls for the UN Security Council to condemn the operation and sent its prime minister to Gaza in a show of solidarity.

"This is very different from the situation under [the former] President Hosni Mubarak who did not trust Hamas, who put Hamas in enemy ranks," says Mustafa Kamal al-Sayyid, a politics professor at Cairo University.

"Of course securing the ceasefire is one way for Egypt to restore an effective role abroad but much more needs to be done to ensure that what was agreed is working. It also depends on whether the ceasefire holds or not."

Twenty-four hours after the new understanding comes into force, talks will begin on easing restrictions on movements of people and the transfer of goods into Gaza.

Discussions are likely to focus on Egypt's commercial crossing at Rafah and the smuggling tunnels that run under the border.

Israel wants the tunnels closed as a matter of urgency to ensure that Iran cannot use them to send missiles to Palestinian militant groups so that they can replenish their stocks.

Rocket attacks

In a televised address after the ceasefire was declared, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told a sceptical Israeli public that "a high price" had been extracted from "terror organisations" in Gaza.

The stated aim of the week-long offensive, which was called Operation Pillar of Defence, had been to halt the increasing rocket attacks on the south of Israel and bring an extended period of calm and quiet.

"According to these arrangements which have been negotiated with the Egyptians, there will be no hostile fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel whatsoever," says the Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev.

"From our point of view this is a victory, this is what our whole operation was about. And if we come out of this now with a sustained period of quiet and the people of southern Israel can have normal lives, from our point of view it was worth it and that's a plus."

The prime minister enjoyed wide support from the Israeli public during the military action. It currently looks set to give him a boost ahead of a general election on 22 January.

Although a ground invasion would have allowed a more complete victory in Gaza, he appears to have made the calculation that it would have been too politically risky, increasing the possibility of Israeli soldiers getting killed.

Events in recent days also enabled Mr Netanyahu to reaffirm the strong alliance between Washington and Israel, after strains with President Barack Obama re-emerged during the US election campaign. Mrs Clinton expressed "rock solid" support for Israel's security during her latest visit.

Image caption Smuggling tunnels along Gaza's Egyptian border have been targeted by Israel

According to many commentators, the political leader who lost most currency from the outcome of events was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Although he met visiting international diplomats at his office in Ramallah - who see him as a partner for peace - and sent an envoy, Nabil Shaath, to Gaza and the Cairo talks, he was largely sidelined while attention went to his political rivals, Hamas.

Across the West Bank, which is controlled by Mr Abbas's Fatah faction, there were daily protests and clashes with Israeli soldiers as people sought to show their solidarity with the suffering of people in Gaza. Some called on their political leaders to solve their differences.

'Push for reconciliation'

Yet a Fatah official, Hossam Zomlot, insists that recent displays of Palestinian unity can bring political change.

"There's a feeling of shared destiny between all Palestinians. Our political ability to push for reconciliation is unprecedented," he says.

Moreover, Mr Zomlot argues that the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza will strengthen the president's resolve to push for an upgrade to the Palestinians' status at the UN.

At the end of this month, the UN General Assembly is due to be asked to vote on a bid to make them a non-member observer.

If approved this could give the Palestinians access to international courts to challenge Israeli action in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza.

"Our determination to go to the United Nations as our solution to the problems with the Israelis is our response to the latest crisis because we believe once and for all we have to end this culture of impunity," Mr Zomlot says.

"This is about our ability to deter Israel. We need recourse to international law."

If relative quiet does stick in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the United Nations could provide the next venue for changing regional dynamics and established alliances to come back into play.