Israel and Hamas: Fire and Ceasefire in a New Middle East
Jerusalem/Gaza City/Cairo/Ramallah/Brussels |
22 Nov 2012
The latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas must move beyond the quick-fix solutions of conflicts past, or the seeds of a future flare-up will be sown today.
Israel and Hamas: Fire and Ceasefire in a New Middle East, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, assesses the outcome of the conflagration and the degree to which changes across the region, most notably a Muslim Brotherhood-governed Egypt, have altered the battlefield.
For Israel and Hamas, a key objective from the start was to mould the new landscape. Israel was keenly aware of the changes and determined to show that they changed nothing: that it retained both freedom of manoeuvre and Western support, and that it would not be hamstrung by concern over how an Islamist-ruled Egypt would react. The Islamist movement was waging that Egypt had become its strategic depth and that it was bolstered by the regional Islamist wave.
Egypt’s leaders faced a difficult balancing act. The Brotherhood must be responsive to a domestic constituency sympathetic to Gaza’s plight, but economic priorities mean it cannot alienate the West. President Morsi also had to contend with a security establishment that remains interested in maintaining working relations with Israel and ensuring Egypt does not assume responsibility for Gaza.
“This was an old, familiar war waged on a new, unfamiliar battleground. In that sense, it was the first real-life challenge faced by the regional order that has emerged out of the Arab uprisings”, says Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “Protagonists were seeking to identify, clarify and, wherever possible, shape the rules of the game”.
The balance sheet is still somewhat murky. Israel showed it retained freedom of action, severely damaged Hamas’s military potential, illustrated the effectiveness of the anti-missile Iron Dome system, worked closely with the U.S. and, through it all, kept Egypt essentially in its old role. Yet, it had to agree to a ceasefire agreement that does not fulfil its goals, in part due to Egypt’s new profile and to U.S. pressure, itself a reflection of Washington’s concern about the new regional order.
Hamas showed it would not be intimidated, basked in unparalleled visits to Gaza by Arab officials and proved itself the central Palestinian player. The ceasefire agreement promises greater access of Gaza to the outside world, a considerable achievement if carried out. Yet if Arab rhetoric was more combative, the actions were somewhat stale. Egypt’s rulers offered little fundamentally new: outraged denunciations, mediation and cooperation with Washington.
For now, the immediate objective must be to ensure fighting truly stops and that other commitments – especially normalising Gaza’s economic situation – are met. History is grounds for scepticism, and many questions remain unanswered, but new Middle East dynamics offer greater hope: Cairo has an incentive to ensure success and has far more credibility and thus leverage with Hamas. Likewise, the U.S. and President Obama appear to have acquired new standing and leverage in Israel thanks to unquestioned support; those can be used to ensure compliance with the ceasefire.
Finally, two related issues must be addressed: the fate of the PA and of the non-Islamist national movement as well as the future of the peace process. A way needs to be found to restore the relevance and effectiveness of those left on the sidelines by the war, yet without whom prospects for a two-state solution likely will vanish. To this end, Cairo should renew its push toward Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
“One thing is clear. The changing map of the Middle East has been kind neither to the non-Islamist side of the Palestinian national movement nor to prospects of a final settlement”, says Robert Blecher, Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli Project Director.
“Now, Egypt should use its bolstered standing to pressure Fatah and Hamas, and take advantage of reaffirmed cooperation with the U.S. to persuade Washington to adopt a more flexible, pragmatic attitude toward Palestinian unity”, comments Nathan Thrall, Crisis Group Middle East Analyst.