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Ceasefire needs serious effort if it's to be a prelude to peace

The last eight days have seen the deaths of 150 Palestinians and five Israelis. Hamas launched around 1,000 rockets into Israel, which pounded Gaza with more than 1,500 air strikes. With the cycle of violence continuing and the death toll rising, the announcement of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on Wednesday night finally signalled an end to the bloodshed.

In the early days of any ceasefire, the skies and ground are watched closely for signs of breaches or observance. So far, it looks good. The violence and destruction of the preceding eight days has subsided into a tentative peace.

The ceasefire, which took effect at 7pm GMT on Wednesday, was announced at a joint press conference by Mohammed Kamel Amr, Egypt’s foreign minister, and Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State.

There are four key points in the deal. Firstly, Israel is to end all hostilities against the Gaza Strip by sea, land and air, including – crucially – targeted killings. Secondly, all Palestinian factions must end hostilities against Israel, including rockets and border attacks. Thirdly, within 24 hours of the ceasefire, “procedures of implementation” must be put in place to open crossings into the Gaza Strip, with a view to allowing the free movement of people and goods. Fourthly, Egypt will manage the deal, receiving assurances from both sides that they will abide by it and following up on any reports that it has been broken.

The main point of contention is likely to be the opening of crossings into Gaza, which has been subject to a crippling blockade for five years. Several reports over the past few years have found that Gaza has been undergoing “de-development” due to the blockade, with materials to rebuild houses destroyed during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead not being allowed in, as well as basic medicine and food stuffs. With the economy suffering, 80 per cent of the population is now reliant on foreign aid. Oxfam has highlighted the importance of lifting restrictions, saying: “Only by lifting the blockade, do we have any chance of ending the incessant cycle of violence that has devastated millions of lives.” Yet Israel is reluctant to end it, citing security concerns. Over the next few days, this clause of the truce will be subject to much debate over its interpretation.

As the dust settles – for now – both sides have claimed victory. Khaled Meshaal, the exiled head of Hamas, said that Israel had “failed in its adventure” and had been forced to accept Palestinian demands. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stressed that Hamas commanders were killed and rockets destroyed, saying he had “extract[ed a] high price from terror organisations”. Indeed, he followed up with a threat: “I know that there are citizens expecting a more severe military action, and perhaps we shall need to do so.” This is a reference to a ground invasion, which Israel refrained from under pressure from the US.

As Netanyahu’s aggression shows, all the ceasefire has really done is return the conflict to its previous state of stalemate, for all the talk of peace. While the deal was greeted with fireworks and celebratory gunfire in Gaza, Israel has been less enthusiastic. An instant poll by Israel’s Channel 2 found that 70 per cent of Israelis opposed the ceasefire. Small protests were held in the southern towns most affected by rocket fire, with banners condemning “agreements with terrorists”. Many Israelis expect the deal to collapse within a few months. If past experience is anything to go by, the lack of popularity with the public makes it very likely that Israel will make good on its threat of more force and crack down hard if Hamas or any other faction fires even a few rockets. Public opinion is of particular importance to Israel’s politicians as the country gears up for a general election in January.

As the world waits, tensely, to see how the ceasefire will pan out, it is worth noting that the deal itself demonstrated the changed realities across the region. The deal was brokered by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi, and his intelligence chief, Mohamed Shehata. The country has long acted as a go-between for Israel and Hamas, but this crisis was seen widely as a test for Morsi. In taking steps towards ending the Gaza blockade, Morsi demonstrated that the post-Arab Spring Middle East may be a more supportive environment for Palestine, in stark contrast to ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, who saw Hamas as the enemy. Clinton commended Egypt’s role: “This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone for regional stability and peace.”

Events over the next few days will be another test. Unless there are further talks and broader peace plans, it is hard to see either side sticking to the ceasefire deal for long. The immediate crisis may be over, but unless serious efforts are made to get the peace process back on track, it will be nothing but another temporary respite.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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