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27 November 2012, Gateway House

Israel-Hamas: Only an intermission

The series of Israeli offensives against Gaza, which began on November 4, ended when Egypt's new President Mohamed Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and the Israeli government on November 13. The possibility of this ceasefire holding up, however, seems remote.

Former Ambassador of the Republic of India to Italy

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The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas – brokered by Egypt and assisted by the U.S. – has not been not signed by either side; it is only what diplomats call a “non-paper.” Egypt is the “sponsor” to whom complaints of violation should be addressed for “follow-up” action. Although the global community has welcomed the ceasefire, many in Israel have reservations.

To understand the origins of the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas, it is necessary to go beyond the prevailing narrative in the mainstream media. Wars originate mostly because somebody wants a war. There were signals of a war in the making at least for a year.

On 28 December 2011, Israel’s daily Haaretz carried an interview with Army Chief Benny Gantz on the occasion of the third anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1,400 Palestinians and 14 Israelis (four from “friendly fire”). Gantz hailed the event as “an excellent operation that achieved deterrence for Israel vis-à-vis Hamas.” “However,” he warned, “cracks have emerged in that deterrence over time, and a second round of fighting in the Gaza Strip is not a matter of choice for Israel. Such a round must be initiated by Israel and must be ‘swift and painful.’”

On 4 November 2012, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) shot dead a mentally-ill Palestinian boy walking close to the “no-go zone” imposed by Israel. Rockets flew from Gaza and retaliation followed. On November 13, the media announced that both sides had agreed to a ceasefire.

Yet, the IDF chose to kill Ahmed al-Jabari, the Hamas’s military chief, on November 14. Gershon Baskin, a prominent Israeli peace activist, who was in contact with Jabari, told Haaretz (15 November 2012) that Israel had made a “strategic mistake” by killing Jabari and that it would cost “quite a number of innocent lives on both sides.”

Israel wanted the war. It was not an act of retaliation. Israel wanted to maintain its “deterrence.”

The West was barely interested in arranging for a ceasefire. The U.S. President, Barack Obama, endorsed more than once Israel’s “right to defend itself.” The implication is that Israel is free to continue bombing; should innocent civilians get killed in the process, it does not matter much so long as they are non-Israelis. It is pertinent to recall that Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Not surprisingly, Israel was reluctant to agree to a ceasefire. It agreed principally because there was no consensus in the Israeli Cabinet for opening a ground offensive, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netyanahu threatened more than once. Defence Minister Ehud Barak opposed sending troops to Gaza. He had learnt the correct lessons from Operation Cast Lead, when Israel was compelled by international pressure to declare a ceasefire with nothing much to show as gains. But Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wanted a ground offensive. Netanyahu vacillated.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Israel to accept the draft negotiated by Egypt. The U.S. has promised to prevent a further flow of arms to Gaza, especially through the border with Egypt.

Egypt’s role deserves to be appreciated. This is the first military confrontation for Israel after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Telegrams published by Wikileaks have indicated that Israel had kept Mubarak in the picture about its plans to launch Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. At the time, Egypt was clearly on the side of Israel.

Some observers in the West were of the view that President Mohamed Morsi might seek a confrontation with Israel after Jabari was killed on November 14. An official spokesman said that “our blood is their blood” and Egypt would not accept “what was accepted before.” The Egyptian Prime Minister visited Gaza and met people in the hospital. The IDF made sure that the Prime Minister was not hit.

But Egypt acted responsibly. The UN Security Council (UNSC), which met on Egypt’s request, did not play a useful role in bringing about the ceasefire. The UNSC got paralysed looking for words to explain how the confrontation began. The U.S. wanted a clear reference to months of rocket firing by Hamas. This was not agreed upon. Finally, the UNSC, with Ambassador Hardeep Puri of India as Chair, “welcomed” the ceasefire and praised Egypt.

India released a statement calling for an end to the violence. On 23 November 2012, The Times of India reported that India is keen to find out more about the Israeli missile defence system (Operation Iron Dome) and that such a system might be useful in the context of a war with Pakistan.

The ceasefire is unlikely to last. The Israeli occupation will continue to beget confrontation from time to time. President Obama is unlikely to do anything substantive to resolve the issue. A solution in the foreseeable future will remain elusive.

Ambassador K. P. Fabian served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, and is currently the President of AFPRO (Action For Food Production). He also holds the K. P. S. Menon Chair at the School of International Studies in Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.

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