The celebrations by thousands of Gaza Strip residents on Wednesday evening appeared genuine. The sense, at least to the outside observer (watching television), was that more than a few Gazans truly wanted to show their feeling that Hamas had been victorious in the 50-day conflict. Nobody was forced to go out into the streets to celebrate at gunpoint.
Still, in the age of the Hamas dictatorship, in which dozens of people without any connection with Israel are summarily executed (said by Hamas to be “Zionist agents”), one doesn’t argue with the boss. When Hamas announces a victory celebration, the masses celebrate a victory.
Or perhaps, as a Gazan friend explained to me, the truth lies somewhere in the middle: “They went out to celebrate the end of the war, make no mistake. Never mind the Hamas claims of victory. People are happy that this story’s over. Life here became hell.”
Al Jazeera put aside its regular coverage of Iraq, Syria and the other Middle East conflicts and launched a special news edition on Thursday morning on the celebrations. A woman interviewed from the floor of parliament in central Gaza shouted, “We won, we won, we are the people of the resistance,” as if she were trying to convince someone that the public still supports Hamas (whose nickname is “the resistance”). Reporter Tamer al-Mishal interviewed a young man who lost both his legs and his hand who vowed that the struggle will continue.
The icing on the cake was the masked men. “Abu Obeidah,” the nom de guerre given to the masked spokespeople (who occasionally changed, but the name remained) of Hamas’s armed wing, held a festive press conference in one of the main streets of Gaza, flanked by masked comrades from other Palestinian factions.” Abu Obeidah” promised the Palestinians of Gaza that what existed before the war wouldn’t return and “we’re in completely different situation after it.”
Abu Obeidah was right, for a change, but not in the way he intended. For hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged during the conflict, the end represents a completely different reality from that which they knew until now. They became refugees. Homeless. For them the ceasefire that came into effect on Tuesday is the beginning of the process of rebuilding their homes, they hope.
“Forget the seaport or airport. Even the prisoners. What bothers people here more than everything else is who will rebuild Gaza,” my Gazan friend told me. “Who will build their homes, the roads, the infrastructure. There are tens of thousands of homes that were damaged in Israeli strikes, thousands of homes that were completely destroyed. Who will rebuild them? With what money? With what materials? It’s the powder keg for the next escalation [of violence with Israel].”
To his credit, this friend is the same one who warned me at the beginning of June that the Palestinian Authority government’s decision not to transfer the salaries of 44,000 Hamas government employees would lead to a conflagration, and soon. In the span of a week, back then, three Israeli teens were kidnapped and killed by members of Hamas. Mahmoud Ali al-Kawasme, originally a Hebron resident, a Hamas member released to the Gaza Strip in the 2011 Shalit deal, was the man who worked his connections from Gaza in order to find funding for a kidnapping and murder of Israelis. (You’ve got to rub your eyes for a second to believe that some people are still writing in the Hebrew papers that Hamas wasn’t behind the killings of the three.)
The rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip is expected to be the most immediate problem with which the Israeli government, Hamas and the Palestinian government will be forced to contend. In order to allow the rebuilding of those same thousands of homes (according to UN statistics, roughly 17,000 families lost their homes, which were completely destroyed or unsuitable for habitation) and the rehabilitation of tens of thousands of others, and to provide even temporary shelter for all the new refugees that filled the streets of Gaza for the past 50 days, it’s necessary to permit the import of huge amounts of building materials into the Strip. The government of Israel will insist, of course, on some kind of oversight mechanism to ensure that the materials let into Gaza won’t be used by Hamas to build new tunnels.
One would have to be particularly naïve in order to think that if large quantities of iron and concrete are let into the Gaza Strip, part of it won’t be used by the Hamas military wing. Or at least to rebuild the same houses that Israel intentionally bombed from the air. That is to say, the same rank and file Hamas military operatives whose houses were bombed will also ask to rebuild their houses (which the IDF spokesperson describes as “command and control rooms”) with the same construction materials that enter Gaza with Israeli approval.
In order to find partial immediate solutions to the reconstruction issue, the UN, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have established a trilateral committee, which comprises UN special envoy Robert Serry, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai and PA Minister of Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh. They are meant to figure out how to carry out this almost impossible project while Hamas still rules Gaza. It appears that at a certain stage Israel will need to allow eased entry of construction materials with a clear warning: If it becomes known that these materials are being used for building tunnels, entry for construction material to the Strip will be immediately halted.
“And what will happen if Israel doesn’t allow the import of construction materials or just limited amounts?” I asked my Gazan friend.
“Bet on it,” he replied. “Next year there will be another war.”
El-Sissi leads the way
The Middle East has posed no shortage of challenges to Israel since the beginning of the Arab Spring, especially in the past few weeks. As one drama in Gaza ends, a second begins in the Golan Heights. This isn’t just a dramatic headline. The fact is that half a day after the ceasefire took effect in Gaza, the Syrian opposition took over the Quneitra border crossing in the Golan Heights. This time it was members of the secular groups that cooperate with the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front.
They may not be members of the Islamic State, for a change, just a less psychotic group. They only decapitate people in rare cases, not on a daily basis. The Nusra Front was born out of the Islamic State of Iraq on the initiative of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who sought to establish a Sunni branch of his Iraqi group. After his emissary, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, chalked up big victories in Syria, the two became embroiled in a conflict over credit, and the rift between the two groups became official.
Beyond the threats, the regional changes also highlight new — and some not-so-new — opportunities created for Israel. The war and ceasefire in Gaza brought two Arab leaders to the fore.
The first is Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Contrary to the halting Israeli leadership, which lacks a clear policy, el-Sissi practically led the Israeli policy in the negotiations with Hamas. He’s the one who from the second day of the conflict (with Israeli consultation, apparently) set the terms of the ceasefire.
Is there anything the Qataris, Turks and even the Americans didn’t do in an attempt try to undermine his diplomacy? Hamas too said all it could against Cairo in an attempt to change the terms of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal.
El-Sissi demonstrated leadership and determination that isn’t often seen in this region, including in Israel, anymore. Time after time he explained to Hamas, to US Secretary of State John Kerry, and to his rivals in Doha and Ankara that it was not his intention to change the ceasefire proposal. What it was, it would be: a return to the ceasefire terms of November 2012, at the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, with the remaining issues to be discussed at a later date.
It took Hamas and its allies 48 days to understand that to prevent their total collapse, they had to accept the Egyptian conditions. And thus the heads of the Gaza terror group found themselves forced to agree to what they had refused over the course of the long campaign– ceasing fire now and agreeing to discuss other matters (such as a seaport, airport, etc.) after a month.
Simultaneously, el-Sissi approved the Egyptian military’s assault on terror targets in Libya, without consulting Washington, which isn’t showing any affection to anybody, anyhow.
The second Arab leader at the fore is PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Over the course of the conflict he avoided excessive criticism of Israel. He put a stop to every kind of security breakdown in the West Bank and was a full partner in reaching a ceasefire. He didn’t hesitate to butt heads with Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal at the end of last week during their meeting in Qatar, while the conflict raged.
Yes, he has threatened to turn to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, but only if Israel ignores his new diplomatic initiative. So a moment before Jerusalem forgets about the threat from Hamas and again turns Abbas into the national enemy No. 1 (which will likely happen in the coming days), perhaps Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might want to consider renewing the peace process. Without Abbas and his presence to bring stability to the situation in the Gaza Strip, and his oversight of the reconstruction of Gaza by placing his presidential guards at the Rafah crossing, the next conflict will be inevitable.
Abbas plans a political process that he has already presented to the press. His intention appears to be to embarrass Israel and the United States, and perhaps garner broader Palestinian public support for his presidency. But though Abbas is at the fore, he was undoubtedly a big short-term loser in the war. The Palestinian public shifted to the radical camp and support for Hamas rose significantly.
If Gaza isn’t rebuilt and, contrary to the guarantees of Hamas, the siege continues, it appears that the Palestinians will radicalize even more and will shift their support to groups like Islamic Jihad or al-Qaeda affiliate groups operating in Gaza.
Still, Abbas may yet come out ahead. Hamas needs him, as does Israel; even the international community needs him. At the beginning of September, Abbas plans to present a proposal to the Arab League for setting a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. After the League approves the plan, with the full backing of Cairo, he’ll present it mid-month to the Security Council, just before the UN General Assembly meets. The plan will likely be spiked by an American veto (though considering the state of relations between the White House and Jerusalem, that is also up in the air).
All this will allow Abbas to demonstrate action and initiative, which perhaps will lead, further down the line, to more significant results than those Hamas achieved, after 50 days and more than 2,000 deaths.