A Tenuous Ceasefire in Gaza

In the latest Gaza conflict, neither side has 'won'. The ceasefire as it stands does no more than restore a fraught status quo, one that will almost certainly crumble again in the absence of dramatic political shifts in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank.

The second Gaza war in four years has drawn to a close - more rapidly than its predecessor (one week versus three), less destructively (158 killed versus over 400 in the first stage of the 2008-9 war) and without a ground invasion of Gaza.

The causes of the war's relative brevity are still unclear: Israel may have feared the Egyptian reaction, Hamas' newly-acquired anti-tank weapons, unprecedented international scrutiny of its military operations, and private American pressure.

Perhaps most important of all, each of the warring parties came away with sufficient tactical victories to save face towards domestic constituencies: Hamas succeeded in bringing Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within rocket range, the former experiencing air raid sirens for the first time since the First Gulf War, and Israel reportedly degrading the leadership and rocket stockpiles of Hamas and other Palestinian militants.

Neither side has 'won' this war. Nonetheless, Hamas has emerged on better terms than it could have expected at the start of the conflict, and Israel with less decisive gains than it sought. As one writer in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted, 'even those who aren't supporters of the organization [Hamas] respect its political achievement'. This may explain why the Israeli cabinet was divided on the acceptability of the ceasefire, and why 70 per cent of Israelis opposed the ceasefire deal.

The ceasefire as it stands does no more than restore a fraught status quo, one that will almost certainly crumble again in the absence of dramatic political shifts in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank.

A dilemma for Egypt

The first problem with the ceasefire is that its principal broker and underwriter, Egypt, is presented with a dilemma in its policy towards Gaza. Israel's attitude to any ceasefire was that it should be long-lasting and durable, which in Tel Aviv's eyes required a guarantee that weapons would not enter Gaza, allowing Hamas to re-arm as it did in the years after Operation Cast Lead. Israel was especially concerned about the Iran-supplied 75 kilometre range Fajr-5 missile that struck Tel Aviv and targeted Jerusalem. Hamas, by contrast, at publicly demanded the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, a blockade that has been partially enforced by Egypt since the last Gaza war.

The first problem with the ceasefire is that its principal broker and underwriter, Egypt, faces a dilemma. What Israel wanted from an agreement was to stop weapons getting into Gaza, especially the longer-range Fajr-5 missile that struck Tel Aviv and buzzed Jerusalem. Hamas, amongst other things, wanted the blockade on Gaza (enforced in part by Egypt) to be lifted.

With respect to these two demands, the ceasefire notionally favours the Palestinian position. The Egyptian text of the agreement says that a loosening of cross-border restrictions would be 'dealt with' 24 hours after the ceasefire takes effect, a period that has now passed without the truce being broken. By contrast, Israel's demands to block arms flows into Gaza were kicked down the road to the next phase of negotiations. In practice, Egypt and the US privately signaled that they would address Israel's concerns - but this was not done in writing.

Gaza's blockade and Hamas' arms

The dilemma for Egypt arises because arms typically get to Gaza from Iran, Sudan, Libya, and other sources via the Sinai Peninsula. An extensive tunnel complex, which handles  approximately $500-$700 million in goods each year, connects the Egyptian and Palestinian side; overground routes through border towns like Rafah have mostly remained shut or tightly controlled, even under Egypt's Islamist government.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi could meet Hamas' demands and fulfil those reported ceasefire terms by opening up the the overground crossing points to commercial traffic, which is presently subject to onerous restrictions. As of October, the blockade permitted just 1,000 lorryloads of 'goods, medicines and construction materials' to enter every week.

An easing of the blockade would allow these much-needed materials to flow more freely into Gaza - but also, it is feared, arms (even though most arms enter Gaza not through these overground routes, but through the tunnels). Both Israel and Egypt are concerned about how a porous overland border would affect security, and this is why the Islamist authorities in Egypt, ideologically aligned with Hamas and having long condemned the blockade, have in fact eased restrictions at a glacial pace. As this week's International Crisis Group report argues, 'the [Mubarak-era] military-security establishment has its interests when dealing with Gaza: cut Hamas down to size [and] maintain working relations with its Israeli counterpart'.

Even assuming the blockade remained unchanged, Egypt would still have difficulty stemming the arms flow. Egyptian military officials in the Sinai can be bribed by smugglers, and the Bedouin tribal groups who dominate the trade are well placed to outwit border checks. Moreover, the Sinai itself has been a hotbed of lawlessness, militancy and extremism over the past year, as the Egyptian revolution led to a loosening of government control over the territory.

Morsi therefore also has reason to be concerned about militancy from Gaza seeping back into Sinai, not just arms flowing out. This is why he has been demolishing the underground tunnels into Gaza and sending troops into Sinai (with Israeli permission, as is required under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty).

This, in essence, is the problem: the president can't simultaneously quarantine Gaza and throw it open to the world. Immediately after the ceasefire was agreed, Hamas' Qatar-based leader Khaled Meshaal praised Morsi for 'not selling us out and not pressuring us'; but the whole point of the ceasefire is that Egypt has promised -  implicitly, if not in writing - to pressure Hamas and help starve it of arms.

Finally, remember that Egypt has traditionally worried that deepening economic integration between Gaza and Egypt would risk turning the Palestinian territory into an annexe of Egypt, thereby exacerbating the division between Gaza and the West Bank and making a two-state solution harder still.

Morsi has thus far struck a remarkably deft balance between these competing demands, earning plaudits in both Gaza and Washington, but the tension will have to be eventually resolved in one or the other direction, bringing with it new friction.

Stresses within Gaza

The ceasefire will also be under great strain from within Gaza. Many if not most of the rockets fired at Israel from Gaza over the past years have not come from Hamas, which has sought to focus on consolidating its political grip in the territory, but instead Hamas' many rivals - including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as an assortment of more austere and extreme Salafist groups.

Hamas' challenge - in fact, its obligation according to the formal text of the ceasefire - is to keep rocket attacks from this panoply of rivals in check, whilst ensuring that, in doing so, it does not call into question its credentials to 'resistance' against Israel and  thereby provoke a violent backlash. Over the past several years, violent repression by Hamas against militant competitors has been common - the most serious incident occurring in 2009, when the leader of an ultra-radical group was killed by Hamas during an attack on a Rafah mosque. In other words, politics inside of Gaza is just as important as what is going on in Cairo.

If one of Hamas' rivals does break the ceasefire, as seems to have been the case on a very small scale in the post-ceasefire hours, any Israeli response could compel Hamas to step in to avoid being outflanked. That, in turn, could trigger another, broader conflict. The same of course goes for unilateral Israeli actions, such as a surprise assassination like that of Ahmad Jabari, the Hamas commander killed last week. Israel has in the past also broken agreed ceasefires. Israeli elections are looming, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is being criticised at home for terminating the war prematurely, and, as mentioned above, a large majority of Israelis are opposed to and deeply sceptical of the truce.

Past Israeli-Palestinian ceasefires have fallen apart in exactly this manner - after all, as late as 25 October, one could read in The Times of Israel the headline 'As Israel-Hamas ceasefire takes hold, life in the south goes back to normal'. That Egypt-mediated truce, like many others, quickly fell by the wayside. This one, forged at the highest levels, may have slightly more going for it - but it will nonetheless come under enormous strain.


Shashank Joshi

Advisory Board

View profile

Explore our related content