As expected, minutes after the Palestinian-Egyptian announcement of a ceasefire in the conflict with Israel, Hamas leaders took to the streets of Gaza to celebrate “victory.” The same cruel and cynical Hamas leaders, who had led Gazans to one of the worst catastrophes the Strip has known, hailed their achievements and successes.
Like a choir that had been practicing for weeks, down there in the tunnels and the bunkers, they held forth about the resilience of the Palestinian people and about their own wonderful organization that had succeeded in hitting the Zionists.
A few hours later the Hamas military wing published a statement “allowing the settlers who live around Gaza to return to their homes.” That announcement did not refer to the tens of thousands of Palestinians who, thanks to Hamas, have no homes to return to in Gaza.
Hamas has been humiliatingly defeated. There is no other way of describing the ceasefire terms. There is no need to be dismayed by the manufactured scenes of celebration on the Palestinian side. There is also no need to be too bothered by critics from left and right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who are already claiming that Israel strengthened Hamas and that it has the upper hand.
The terror group that controls Gaza can claim some achievements in this war. It kept firing rockets until the last moment and proved a capacity for resilience. It won support in the Arab world, among some residents of the West Bank, and even to some extent internationally. At the same time it should be remembered that Israel did not seek at any point to bring Hamas down. To weaken it, yes, but also to ensure its capacity to survive — to enable it to continue to serve as the Gaza leadership address, a partner to deal with.
Hamas’s defeat lies in the area it counts as most important. With all due respect to the international community, or to al-Jazeera which emerged as the Hamas propaganda arm, what interests Hamas is public opinion in Gaza and in the West Bank. Time and again its leaders — including military wing chief Muhammad Deif, of whom it is not clear what remains after the IDF airstrike that targeted his home — bragged and made promises to the Gaza public that this conflict would continue until the siege was lifted. And until the re-arrested prisoners from the Shalit deal were released. And until an airport was opened. In their enthusiasm for these causes, they cost hundreds of thousands of Palestinians their homes. Two thousand, one hundred and forty-four men, women and children who were killed in a war that they were assured by Hamas simply had to continue until those goals were achieved. The Hamas leadership swore that without a seaport (getting the Rafah border crossing reopened was not deemed a sufficient achievement because it is controlled by the Egyptians) the rockets would continue to fall on Sderot and Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Netivot.
Hamas further promised that there would be no return to the understandings that ended Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 or to the realities of recent years. Time after time, for almost 50 days, they rejected the Egyptian initiative, which included, almost clause for clause, the elements of the 2012 agreement.
And then, on Tuesday afternoon, when first word of the ceasefire began to emerge, it became clear that Hamas had capitulated, retreated with its tail between its legs, abandoned everything it had insisted upon. No seaport and no airport. No release of the Shalit prisoners who were re-arrested in June after the murders of the three Israeli teens. No lifting of the blockade.
The residents of Gaza — their lives, their economy, their health — will still depend on the attitude and policies of the Israeli government on one side, and the Egyptian government on the other.
In a month’s time there will be negotiations on all of Hamas’s demands. In the realities of the Middle East or more accurately the realities of today’s Egypt, that means one thing: Forget about it.
The announcement of the ceasefire was made simultaneously on Tuesday — by the Egyptian foreign ministry and in an emotional speech by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas had been working hard in previous days, both to reach a ceasefire agreement and to draft a political plan (which has been leaked to the media).
And here, in this man, may be seen the beginning of Israel’s defeat.
Militarily, Israel was not beaten. Hamas “succeeded” in killing 70 Israelis — 64 soldiers and six civilians — but its strategic weapons failed. Its attack tunnels were destroyed, its rockets were foiled by Iron Dome, and thus it was unable truly to paralyze the Israeli economy or to disrupt the lives of the residents of central and northern Israel. The state continued to function, civilian life worked as usual, and even the stock exchange did not register significant falls. (For residents of the south, close to Gaza, it was a different story. The government did give up on them; it was as though the massive damage in the communities close to Gaza was not critical. If the residents of Tel Aviv had been forced to flee north, the Israeli army would have found itself in the heart of Gaza City.)
But unless there is a 180 degree turn in Israeli policy relating to Abbas, the ceasefire will change nothing and the next escalation is only a matter of time.
In recent years the government of Netanyahu, together with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the rest of its members, has been overly fond of the idea of Hamas controlling Gaza. Not a single one of the decision makers truly wanted to reconquer the Strip or bring down Hamas in recent years. It was like a sacred cow that nobody wanted to harm. Since taking office, Netanyahu’s governments have clearly preferred Hamas control of Gaza to substantive peace negotiations with Abbas. There have been understandings designed to maintain quiet and to ensure Hamas’s capacity to maintain stability in Gaza, turning a blind eye to aberrations, while relentless efforts have been made to undermine Abbas.
The Shalit deal was one of the peaks — or nadirs — of this policy, with 1,027 security prisoners released under Hamas extortion for the soldier held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. Operation Protective Edge is another.
Right up to the war, right-wing Israeli politicians had made a practice of castigating Abbas for his unity agreement with Hamas, even though he had put together a government with no Hamas members, which accepted all the Quartet’s demands and recognized Israel. This did not interest his Israeli critics, for whom Abbas is a terrorist who had allied with terrorists and who talked with terrorists. Yet it is now entirely clear that Israel is not trying to bring down Hamas in Gaza, and that Israel talks to Hamas in Cairo (albeit indirectly).
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz went so far as to call Abbas the biggest anti-Semite in the Middle East. This is the same Abbas who pressed Hamas and its political leader Khaled Mashaal to accept a ceasefire under humiliating conditions. This is the same Abbas who is now promising to oversee the rehabilitation of Gaza, by means of the same government of technocrats with which Israel has refused to cooperate. It was also Abbas’s forces which produced the information identifying the kidnappers and killers of the three Israeli teens as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Ayash. This “major anti-Semite” declares that he recognizes Israel and wants to reach an end-of-conflict agreement with it.
Operation Protective Edge and the ceasefire are not going to change reality. The Gaza Strip will not be demilitarized. The only person who might just be able to bring about the beginning of a change for the better in Gaza is Abbas, and the insistent ignoring of the man who announced Tuesday’s ceasefire, or more accurately the decision to confront him at every opportunity, is baffling and almost unforgivable. Israel’s diplomatic defeat therefore was clear even before this operation began. It lay in the government’s insistence not to give so much as an opportunity to Abbas’s new government to lead a real change.
Except now Israel will apparently agree to precisely such a course, because if it doesn’t do so the only alternative is this: further economic deterioration in Gaza, the re-arming of Hamas, and another round of conflict as early as the coming year.