The historic Gaza-Israel truce saw Egypt take centre-stage as a major geo-political player: as details of the ceasefire are fine-tuned amid growing instability in Egypt, Bel Trew takes a closer look at the losses and gains
The Gaza-Israel ceasefire agreement, brokered by Egypt and the US one week ago, has been largely forgotten amid Egypt’s current domestic troubles, as the country witnesses mass protests against President Mohamed Morsi’s “power grab” Constitutional Declaration and the pushing through of new Constitution.
Nevertheless, the historic truce – which ended eight days of cross-border rocket attacks – is seen by analysts as a highly significant development for the future of Middle-Eastern geopolitics, with much debate over who actually came out on top.
The agreement stipulates that hostilities by both sides, in the form of rockets and air and sea invasions, must stop, and that Israel must ease its maritime and border siege of the Gaza Strip.
In Israel, many see the ceasefire as a defeat for the self-proclaimed Jewish state.
“The reaction in Israel is overwhelmingly negative,” explained Al Jazeera journalist Gregg Carlstrom, who was based on Israel’s border with Gaza throughout the course of the conflict.
Carlstrom described residents dragging mattresses to the hilltops overlooking the strip, and one Israeli man eating pizza while watching rockets pummel the Palestinian territory.
However, public support for the government during the offensive quickly turned to criticism when the terms of the truce were announced.
“The consensus here was that if Israel agrees to a ceasefire, then it will be broken and we’ll face another war in the future,” Carlstrom explained. “The people said they would like to see Hamas totally defeated, otherwise this truce gives Hamas time to re-arm and the whole process will be repeated.”
Residents he spoke to were pushing for a ground invasion. Nevertheless, when the 40,000 reserve troops were stationed at the Gaza borders, he said they were “surprisingly negative.”
“They recognised it was just for show, and because the troops were basically sitting in empty fields without shelter within rocket range, the people here thought they were sitting ducks,” Carlstrom said.
Overall, Carlstrom concluded that they believed that all Israel got out of this truce was temporary quiet. “A few people I spoke to even said Hamas had won,” he said.
Hamas: A regional power?
Certainly, minutes after the ceasefire was announced in Cairo on 21 November, there were jubilant and celebratory scenes as thousands took to the streets of Gaza – which had resembled a ghost town during Israel’s weeklong onslaught.
“I think it’s pretty clear who came out of this conflict a winner. Israel has continuously run on the platform that it is invincible, but [Hamas] has been able to refute this assertion,” Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar told Ahram Online. During the conflict, approximately 1,456 Hamas rockets reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The number and reach of the rocket-fire was unprecedented, asserted Reem Abou-El-Fadl, junior research fellow in international relations and Middle East politics at Oxford University. Consequently, Gaza has to be seen as the victor, as it resisted the massive onslaught while showing impressive resilience.
Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings-Doha Centre, agreed.
“Hamas can claim victory as long as it stands up to Israel’s rockets,” he said, adding that Arab officials entering Gaza – together with shows of solidarity from Turkey, Egypt and Qatar – meant that Hamas now enjoyed extraordinary regional legitimacy. ”It’s recognised as a political actor,” Hamid said. “Leaders of Hamas are being treated as leaders of a state, perhaps better treated.”
On a domestic level, human rights attorney and teaching fellow at Temple Law School Noura Erakat said that the combination of welcoming Arab diplomats and demonstrating enhanced military capacity not only ensured that Hamas was able to secure favourable terms in the ceasefire, but coincided with the fading relevance of rival Palestinian faction Fatah’s “strategy of negotiation and compliance.”
Hamas leader El-Zahar added that all their conditions had been included in the ceasefire agreement, such as the easing of maritime borders, although he was reserved about calling the agreement a “ceasefire” or “truce,” preferring to describe it as “a relative calm in violence.”
Despite government promises and calls from large sections of the Israeli public, Israel’s objective appears not to have been to destroy Hamas or to flatten Gaza.
Ahead of the January 2013 elections, commentators have claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to show a bit of muscle with the attack on Gaza.
However, international pressure on Tel-Aviv, prevented him from escalating operation “Pillar of Defense.”
“Netanyhu’s aim was to stop the rocket fire in the short term ahead of the [January 2013] elections,” Carlstom speculated, adding an ongoing war with Gaza as people headed to the polls, particularly as rocket fire was reaching the capital, would have damaged the incumbant’s chances.
So keeping the truce, Carlstrom continued, is vital to the current administration: if there is another barrage of rockets in the weeks preceding the polls, “people are going to say we told you so – Netanyahu will lose massive support at the polls, and the ceasefire will have backfired.”
For its part, Hamas did not want to escalate the conflict either: a ground invasion could have been devastating and may not have fulfilled their key demand of eased borders.
For once it appears that the interests of Hamas and Israel converged: they both wanted the rocket fire to stop.
Even America, who oversaw the negotiations as Israel’s staunch ally and pledged to replenish Israel’s depleted “Iron Dome” and arms capacities, regards war in the region as a “disaster.”
“America is stuck in a conflict where there is almost no good outcome,” said Eric Trager, New Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute, “the best outcome for the US is non-belligerence.”
The ceasing of hostilities for them was the only conclusion.
However, the ceasefire remains extremely fragile.
Only hours following the ceasefire, around 12 rockets were fired into Israel. Hamas denied responsibility, showing that Gaza’s ruling movement may not have complete control over the other armed Palestinian factions and so cannot promise to uphold the ceasefire terms.
Meanwhile, Israel on Saturday gunned down a 23 year-old Palestinian man and injured 15 for “attempting to breach the border”, the army claimed.
In addition, at least ten Gazan fishermen have been detained by Israeli authorities despite the ceasefire allowing them to fish three miles further out to sea than previously permitted by Israel.
While Gaza feels the blow of Israel’s violations of the truce and with Israel getting little more than peace and quiet, the question remains: who really came out on top?
Egypt: International player
The negotiations have been largely attributed to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, leading many observers to point out that Time magazine’s expected “Man of the year” might have been the one figure who gained the most from the agreement.
“It has become clear that the key to peace and war in the region is in the hands of Egypt,” an informed Egyptian diplomatic source told Ahram Online.
This, the source added, has reaffirmed Egypt’s central role in the region.
Mohamed Assem Ibrahim, former ambassador to Israel from 2005 to 2008, commented that Egypt positioned itself as the sole entity able to speak with the two sides, so the only force able to pull off the truce.
However, Ibrahim maintained that “this is a conflict that no one lost.”
Israel, while appearing to be in the weakest position, Ibrahim said, was at the very least able to show off its military capabilities with the anti-rocket defense “Iron Dome” system.
Relations with Israel
Many were expecting Morsi to decisively shift Egyptian foreign policy towards Israel, as Egypt’s first democratically elected president who also hails from an Islamist group.
Abou-El-Fadl claims that Morsi’s position confirms what many had suspected: the president is maintaining a conservative position to the Palestinian question.
“Egypt’s President is unwilling to change the status quo which Mubarak left and used this stance to secure US support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”
She claims that all moves made so far can only be characterised as cosmetic changes, including the withdrawal of the ambassador, which did not see the closing down of the embassy and the opening of Rafah border crossing.
Even Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s visit to Gaza on 16 November, still resembled the language of deposed president Hosni Mubarak and Anwar El-Sadat’s regime.
“Speaking about peace for all nations in the region, as opposed to the fiery discourse traditionally employed by the Islamists on Palestine was indicative of this position,” she noted.
American observers also see little change in Egypt’s position on Israel.
Washington Institute’s Trager said the accomplishment for Egypt was that Morsi did not have to agree to Egypt doing anything in the ceasefire agreement.
This is something he said the international community has overlooked.
“While Israel was forced to concede the borders opening and Hamas to end rocket attacks, Morsi conceded nothing, especially any Egyptian role in preventing Hamas from re-arming,” Trager said.
In addition, the Egyptian president did not have to fully recognise Israel, despite Washington reading it that way.
Morsi refused to meet with Israeli officials and outsourced negotiations to intelligence professionals as well as authoring terms of a truce which left Hamas stronger, Trager asserted.
Nevertheless Morsi proved himself to be pragmatic on the regional and global stage, which aside from winning him brownie points in the international community, secured him real financial gains.
“He is learning how to play the foreign policy game,” Trager continued,” and how to have good relations with the US as this is critical to economic recovery for Egypt.”
This is why the release of the internationally panned Constitutional Declaration could be so potentially damning.
There are fears that as the country becomes increasingly unstable the International Monetary Fund’s $4.8billion loan and US economic aid might be retracted.
“The bottom line is the international community has been very slow to see the Brotherhood for what they are… to see their dictatorial tendencies,” Trager asserted, citing Morsi’s decree as an example of Brotherhood power grabs.
“Morsi created the illusion to the US that he could serve as some sort of negotiator between Hamas and Israel.”
The US, he said, wants to believe that whatever disagreement they have with Morsi’s ideas and rhetoric he can still be an ally for “counter-terrorism regional peace.”
However, Trager added, as long as the Egyptian president continues to establish a new dictatorship that creates chaos in Egypt this will not be possible.
Morsi, relying on this new political capital gained from negotiating the truce, may have overstepped the mark by releasing the Constitutional Declaration and pushing through a controversial Constitution at such a crucial stage.
An escalating breakdown within Egypt’s domestic political arena could seriously impact ongoing negotiations to buttress the Israel-Gaza tentative truce: how can the Egyptian president broker peace deals, if he does not have a handle on the situation at home?
The international fallout from Morsi’s power grab, commentators say, remains to be seen.