As last Wednesday’s ceasefire began, the people of Gaza were in celebratory mood, despite their 160 martyrs and 1,000 wounded. Something has changed — finally — in the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians and the future suddenly seems less bleak for the 1.7 million people crammed into the strip’s 360 square kilometres.
For those in the world’s biggest prison, the truce holds the promise of open doors. The resistance is prising the keys from Israel’s iron grip and while the end of the siege on Gaza may be some way off, it was firmly on the agenda during negotiations in Cairo.
Eight days of conflict have thrown up new winners … and unexpected losers.
The Palestinian resistance crossed a red line when it struck Tel Aviv with long-range missiles. Not even Hezbollah — though it had the same Iranian-made missiles during the 2006 war in Southern Lebanon — dared attack Tel Aviv for fear of the hornet’s nest such a daring act would stir up. Israel is, after all, armed to the teeth with all the latest weaponry (courtesy the US) including nuclear warheads.
The world held its breath, waiting to see how the famously incendiary Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, would respond. ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’, was intended to present the ‘iron fist’ image which had proved so popular with the Israeli electorate before — and Netanyahu is seeking re-election in January. In addition, the emphasis on the Iranian provenance of the missiles and rockets raining down on Israel was designed to justify an early strike on Iran — again, something which would be popular with voters.
A brutal ground invasion, a re-run of the 2008/09 ‘Operation Cast Lead’ massacre of 1,400 Gazans, seemed imminent.
However, the Arab Spring has changed the regional map in several significant ways which Israel — and its American allies — seemed unprepared for.
First of all, the ferocity of the Palestinian resistance organisations’ response took Israel by surprise. In the past, Hamas, Islamic Jiihad and the Popular Resistance Committee were poorly equipped. This time around, they not only had long-range missiles, but sophisticated weaponry from Muammar Gadaffi’s stockpiles, abandoned during the Libyan uprising, which have arrived in the strip via Sudan. These include anti-tank missiles, which would put Israel’s ground forces at risk of high casualties.
Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt — which borders Gaza — failed to curb Israel. Today’s post-revolutionary government in Cairo is more willing to reflect the will of the people, who support their Arab brethren in Palestine.
Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi responded swiftly to the outbreak of hostilities last Wednesday. He immediately recalled the Egyptian Ambassador from Tel Aviv. Two days later, his Prime Minister and a large entourage of Egyptian dignitaries, arrived in Gaza in an overt gesture of solidarity.
By last Sunday, Israel had sent an envoy to Cairo, opening the way for the negotiated ceasefire which is now in place.
The same day, President Mursi met Hamas leader Khalid Mesha’al and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shalah. How things have changed — the latter was placed on the FBI’s ‘most wanted terrorists’ list in 2010!
Mursi, that stalwart of the West’s former nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood, had become the man to go to’ and last Monday, US President Barack Obama put in a personal call to him. The next day, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, broke off her tour of the Near East, rushing to occupied Jerusalem where she met Benjamin Netanyahu. It was only after she visited President Mursi in Cairo, however, that the truce was confirmed — and that despite a bomb in Tel Aviv which wounded 28 people on a bus just hours earlier.
The point I am making here is that both Israel and the US were obliged to negotiate — albeit indirectly — with fighter groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad — in order to secure the truce they were clearly seeking.
Abbas and the PNA, meanwhile, were completely excluded from the diplomatic flurry in Cairo. Not only that, the people of the West Bank rose up in solidarity with Gaza and against the decade of stagnation and inactivity imposed on them by the PNA. Abbas has lost both status and credibility as result of the conflict.
Mursi, on the other hand, has emerged as a powerful new regional player. Hillary Clinton praised him for his “leadership role” and Obama phoned him again last Thursday to thank him, describing him as “someone focused on solving problems”.
The Obama administration did not want the fighting in Gaza to spread, possibly dragging in other Arab countries and upsetting the tenuous balance of power in the region. The US has more immediate concerns and other intentions in the region at the moment. It has spent the past few weeks creating a more plausible opposition movement in Syria and an attack on Iran remains likely.
The Gaza conflict has galvanised Arab public opinion in a way we have not seen for years, bringing the Palestinian question back to the top of the agenda, on a tidal wave of popular solidarity.
This, in turn, has the potential to embarrass the leaders of the ‘moderate’ Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. The question on every Arab’s lips is: Why are these powerful nations prepared to arm the Syrian resistance so that Muslims can kill Muslims, but fail to offer their Palestinian brethren the same help in their fight against Israeli aggression and occupation?
This then is my assessment of the winners and losers as the dust in Gaza settles — if only temporarily.
I was disappointed that lifting the siege of Gaza was not made a non-negotiable prerequisite for peace, but change is coming. Netanyahu’s old-school aggression and arrogance both proved ill-founded; not only are his chances of being re-elected in January damaged, but the more moderate, liberal tendency inside Israel will benefit from his failures.
Under duress, the Israelis have shown themselves to be capable of reasonable negotiation. The challenge now is to keep up the pressure on Israel — and the world — to finally deliver justice to the Palestinians.
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.