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Gaza Cease-Fire Allows Victory Claims That Face Peacetime Test

Gaza Cease-Fire Allows Victory Claims That Face Peacetime Test
Israeli soldiers pray at dawn at an artillery emplacement close to the northern Gaza Strip border with Israel. Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Leaders of Israel and Hamas, who proclaimed themselves winners when a cease-fire ended the latest round of violence in the Gaza Strip, may falter when they have to flesh it out with concrete steps.

The accord, which called a halt to eight days of bloodshed that left 163 Palestinians and six Israelis dead, commits both sides to “stop all hostilities,” the key requirement for Israelis seeking an end to rocket fire. It says that after 24 hours of calm, discussions will start on freeing the movement of people and goods to and from Gaza, meeting a central Hamas demand by easing a five-year blockade.

That’s when threats to the understandings may emerge. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be reluctant to reconsider border arrangements he considers vital for security. Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, needs to display gains from the diplomacy and can’t always rein in other militant groups, some of which are already vowing to fight on.

“On both sides, the propaganda machine is portraying this agreement as a victory,” said Riccardo Fabiani, a regional analyst at the Eurasia Group, which studies political risk, in London. “It’s clear that without a long-term understanding on the rules of the game, the truce won’t last forever. The gap is between what Hamas and Israel want from and are ready to concede to one another.”

Market Reaction

The announcement of a cease-fire late on Nov. 21 spurred a rally in U.S. stocks and oil retreated from a one-month high earlier in the week on expectations of a truce. Israel’s shekel rose as much as 1 percent yesterday to 3.8581 a dollar, the highest in almost a month.

The TA-25 benchmark stock index increased 2.5 percent on the week, the biggest gain since the week ended Oct. 4. In Egypt, the benchmark index is down about 4 percent since the conflict began, though it’s still among the world’s best performers this year with a 50 percent gain.

In Gaza on Nov. 21, Asmail al-Ashqar, a senior Hamas leader, declared “victory on all levels -- military, political, economic and security.” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the military achieved its goals. The army said in an e-mail sent 33 minutes after the cease-fire went into effect that it hit more than 1,500 military sites, including underground rocket launchers and weapon manufacturing and storage facilities.

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized full control of the seaside territory in 2007, ending a partnership government with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party a year after winning parliamentary elections.

Border Curbs

As the talks stipulated in the accord get underway, Israel will seek guarantees such as an Egyptian or Palestinian Authority presence at the crossings before agreeing to ease restrictions, an Israeli government official said, speaking anonymously as he wasn’t authorized to talk about the situation. Hamas may not accept the dilution of its authority over Gaza that such an arrangement would involve.

“I don’t think there will be an easing of the blockade,” said Ashraf el-Sharif, a lecturer in political science at the American University in Cairo. “We will just go back to the status quo that was before the latest operation: a declared truce and quiet in preparation for the next round.”

Both sides have signaled their readiness to resume fighting.

“Israel is ready to act should the cease-fire be violated,” Netanyahu said yesterday. “We will be committed to the cease-fire as long as the Zionist enemy is,” Hamas’s al-Ashqar said by phone. “The battle with the enemy hasn’t ended,” declared a masked gunman from the Islamic Jihad’s military wing at a press conference in Gaza City.

Lebanon Precedent?

Lebanon to Israel’s north may set an encouraging precedent for Gaza, said Gabi Ben Dor, director of national security studies at Haifa University. The understanding Israel reached with Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamic militant group, called for a full cessation of hostilities and curbs on arms sales. It has kept the border largely peaceful since the monthlong war between the countries in 2006. That accord succeeded because it allowed both sides to claim victory, Ben Dor said.

“I think the cease-fire is going to hold,” he said. “Both sides will be happy enough for some time,” with Hamas leaders enhancing their legitimacy both locally and globally, while the damage inflicted by Israel will act as a deterrent and give it time to develop new anti-missile technology.

Maintaining peace with Hamas may be tougher, because it’s fighting for statehood and survival in a way the Lebanese group isn’t, Eurasia’s Fabiani said.

“Israel is only one of Hezbollah’s problems, whereas for Hamas, Israel is the problem,” he said.

No Turkey

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who came to power after the popular revolt last year that ousted Israel and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, emerged from the conflict with enhanced global stature for his role in brokering the halt to hostilities.

Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sought a mediating role in Middle Eastern conflicts and was involved in earlier diplomacy over Gaza, didn’t play a role in the final negotiations and irked the U.S. with repeated verbal attacks on Israel.

Praise rained down on Mursi from all sides.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who stood alongside Mursi’s foreign minister as he announced the cease-fire in Cairo, commended Egypt’s new government for showing leadership. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal hailed Mursi for showing solidarity by sending Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to visit Gaza while it was under fire.

New Architecture?

“We’ve been able to engage Egypt in the solution,” Israeli deputy premier Dan Meridor told reporters in Jerusalem yesterday. “We might have created a new architecture for Egypt and Israel.”

For Mursi, too, cementing the cease-fire will prove a challenge, and he probably will come up against the limits of his newfound authority, said Emad Mostaque, a London-based emerging-market investment adviser at Religare Hitchens Harrison. Protesters against Mursi’s government have repeatedly clashed with security forces in the past week, and he’s still struggling to revive Egypt’s economy after tourists and investors fled last year’s unrest.

“He’s got enough momentum on this particular thing that he can start the flow across the border in particular,” Mostaque said by phone. “But I don’t think he’s got sufficient momentum to effectively take up the role of Israel in policing Gaza.”

Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, were left on the sidelines of the past week’s diplomatic flurry. Clinton’s visit to him in Ramallah last week was sandwiched between her talks in Jerusalem and Cairo, where the cease-fire was hammered out.

UN Request

Abbas next week plans to ask the United Nations General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status to “non-member state.” While the move has been applauded by Hamas, opposition from Israel and the U.S. blocked a similar attempt at the Security Council last year.

“The PA and Mahmoud Abbas come out of this looking irrelevant, and of course that’s something that helps Hamas,” which has become “a respected regional player like never before,” Brookings’ Hamid said. “Hamas is the main winner in all of this.”

---With assistance from Mariam Fam and Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo, Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem and Jennifer Freedman in Brussels. Editors: Ben Holland, Anne Swardson.

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