I was greatly disappointed that the ceasefire agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians did not include lifting the siege of Gaza. Nevertheless, progress has been made, despite Gaza’s 160 martyrs and 1000 wounded. The power balance has changed, 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 and the brave Palestinian resistance is steadily prising the keys Israel’s iron grip.
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 of 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 2008/9 ‘Operation Cast Lead’ massacre of 1400 Gazans, seemed imminent.
But 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 Colonel 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.
President Morsi responded swiftly to the outbreak of hostilities on 14 November. He immediately recalled the Egyptian Ambassador 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 18 November, Israel had sent an envoy to Cairo, opening the way for the negotiated ceasefire which is now in place.
The same day, President Morsi met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal 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!
Morsi, that stalwart of the West’s former nemesis, the Moslem Brotherhood, had become ‘the man to go to’ and on 19 November, US President Obama put in a personal call to him. The next day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke off her tour of the Near East, rushing to Jerusalem where she met Benjamin Netanyahu. It was only after she visited President Morsi in Cairo, however, that the truce was confirmed – and that despite a bomb in Tel Aviv which had 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 ‘terrorist’ groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in order to secure the truce they were clearly seeking.
President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), meanwhile, were completely excluded 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 PA. Abbas has lost both status and credibility as result of the conflict.
Morsi, 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 on Thursday to thank him, describing him as ‘someone focussed 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 galvanized Arab public opinion in a way we haven’t 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 Moslems can kill Moslems, 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.
As we look to the future, I think we will see Netanyahu’s fortunes to fade. His 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 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 rest of the world - to finally deliver justice to the Palestinians.