Thursday, November 22, 2012

Give thanks I: A pause in Gaza

FOR NOW anyway, there’s a lot to be thankful for based on what’s happening, and not happening, in the Middle East.

Unless all hell’s broken loose, a fragile truce is holding between Israel and Hamas, ending eight days of rocket attacks and airstrikes that left 162 Palestinian civilians (including more than 40 children) and Hamas sympathizers dead in Gaza, and five Israelis killed within the state of Israel.

Under the terms of the agreement, both Israel and Hamas have agreed to “stop all hostilities ... in the land, sea and air including incursions and targeting of individuals” and urges the Palestinian factions to end “rocket attacks and all attacks along the border.”

Israel agrees to end its targeted killings of Hamas leadership. If things have remained quiet for 24 hours — several hours ago now — Israel is to consider lifting border controls, easing the movements of everyday Palestinians.

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An end to fighting that victimizes civilians is obviously cause for relief; what’s even more promising is how this tenuous cease-fire is being orchestrated, and by whom, and what it says about the evolving power equation in the region.

Now like before like always, the central players have been present and accounted for in the negotiations: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But the current cease-fire was in part brokered by Mohammed Morsi, president of Egypt, who’s pledged to use his friendly relationship with Hamas to help keep the peace.

“Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace,” Clinton said in Cairo on Wednesday.

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MORSI HAS stepped up to the plate in a way that certainly, in the short term, burnishes his bona fides as a world leader. This is a big baby step for at least the hope of an enduring peace; the Egyptian president has committed his nation to a status of change agent, and returns Egypt to its historical role as regional acrobat: a reliable ally of the United States and a comparatively sturdy third party between Israel and its antagonists. Shades of the days of Anwar Sadat.

Morsi appears to have handled the first big regional crisis since he took office in late June with a pragmatism that answers both the immediate need for quiet and the longer-term need for a real negotiation process, in pursuit of a long-term solution.

Early reaction has been positive. "The Gaza truce was the first big test for Morsi, and it is doing well. He led the negotiations in a balanced manner," El-Sayed Amin Shalabi, head of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, told Agence France-Presse.

Hassan Nafaa, an Egyptian columnist and political analyst, said Morsi “cleverly used relations with Hamas to help achieve a primary objective of Egypt, which is a cessation of violence.”

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While Clinton built up her frequent-flier miles in the region — sprinting from Israel to Ramallah to Cairo — President Obama performed shuttle diplomacy by phone, talking with Morsi and Netanyahu, and pledging to the Israeli leader more funds for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system.

Overnight news reports from Gaza showed Palestinians and Hamas celebrating the deal; Aymon Moyheldin of NBC News said sermons at mosques in Gaza were spinning the agreement as a victory for Hamas and the Palestinians — which is to be expected.

It’s a given that the outcome of events — a psychological victory, if not a military one — would be portrayed in Gaza as proof of Hamas’ toughness and its leverage in the region, their $800 rockets hailed as a match for the might of the Israeli military, whose use of the Iron Dome system over the eight days of conflict cost between $25 million and $30 million, Reuters reported.

In an address, Netanyahu took the high road, saying that “at the present time, the right thing for the state of Israel is to exhaust the possibility of reaching a long-term cease-fire.”

But Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed of the University of Cairo told AFP that Netanyahu was under heavy pressure from the United States to sign on to the agreement. "One wondered about Netanyahu's reaction to a cease-fire that appeared as a failure because it has not met Israeli military objectives," he said.

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BARRING THE cease-fire blowing up, the next clash between Israel and the Palestinians is set to take place in a better place for conflict resolution: At the United Nations.

Haaretz reports that, during her talks in Israel, Clinton warned Netanyahu against extreme reaction to an expected Palestinian request for recognition of the Palestinian Authority as a non-member state.

The Palestinians intend to ask the UN General Assembly to vote on upgrading the status of the Palestinian Authority to non-member status on the symbolic date of Nov. 29.

That’s the anniversary of the UN vote on accepting the Partition Plan in 1947, a vote that led to the creation of the Jewish state the following year.

Nov. 29 — next Thursday — is also the UN’s Day of International Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Image credits: Palestinian father in Gaza: Screengrab from Al Jazeera video. Morsi: AFP. President Obama on Air Force One: Pete Souza/The White House. Palestinian boy and Hamas fighter: AP/Adel Hana.

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