Earlier today Prof. Menachem Kellner in Haifa sent me a copy of a blog post I wrote in January 2009, in the closing stages of that
Hamas-Israel war (see below).
I confess that I'd forgotten about that post. Re-reading it brought home to me, depressingly, the extent to which we've already been through this scenario before ... and may well go through it again—and again?—in the future. (Israel hasn't declared a unilateral cease-fire yet in the current Gaza war, but it may be moving in that direction
On the other hand, history never precisely
repeats itself. It's possible that this time things might turn out differently (which, alas, doesn't necessarily mean better—though one can always hope).
Israel declares a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza [January 17, 2009]
It has now been 22 days since Israel launched its military operation against Hamas in Gaza on December 27, 2008. It was never clear how the fighting would end, but we may now be seeing the beginning of the endgame—though one has to say that tentatively.
Today Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire
to take effect at midnight (Greenwich Mean Time).
BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen says the question now is whether Hamas
decides to lick its wounds and regroup - or whether it gambles on
dragging Israel into a war of attrition.
So what will this unilateral cease-fire mean concretely? Hard to know, but here are some immediate reactions and speculations.
This has been a war of terrible dilemmas, about which it has been
impossible to feel confident or unconflicted. Israel was certainly
justified in responding to the resumption of Hamas rocket attacks
against Israeli civilian communities, which have been hit by thousands
of these rockets over the years. (And the range of Hamas's rockets has
been increasing, as Michael Walzer
pointed out so they don't pose a static threat.) But the fact that
something is, in principle, justified doesn't necessary make it a good
idea, and in this case the dangers and drawbacks were pretty obvious.
other things, it wasn't clear whether and how military action could
compel Hamas to cease those attacks, and no serious person expected
either that this operation would break Hamas's control over Gaza or that
Israel had any desire to re-occupy Gaza. At the same time, the longer
this fighting went on, the more it increased death and suffering for
Palestinian civilians in Gaza (and for Israelis, though Israel is both
more concerned and more able than Hamas to protect its civilians). So
Israel had both moral and practical reasons not to want to get sucked
into an open-ended war.
As early as the first week of fighting, accordingly, several people—including David Grossman
and my friend Gershon Shafir
—proposed that Israel should unilaterally declare a cease-fire and essentially dare Hamas to respond. As Gershon put it in concluding his piece:
The strongest argument in favor of such an approach is that all the
available alternatives—including the currently stated Israeli policy of
seeking ‘to educate’ or eliminate Hamas—lead nowhere and can only
yield disastrous and counterproductive results, along with unnecessary
human suffering. Israel has made its point. Now it should know when to
Something like that may be happening now, but after the weeks that have passed, the circumstances may be different.
Up to now, neither Israel nor Hamas has been willing to accept an unconditional cease-fire. The public position of the Israeli government has been that any cease-fire would have to be "durable and
sustainable." It hasn't been entirely clear to observers like me what
they meant by this in practice, but at least part of what the Israeli
government seemed to be looking for were post-conflict arrangements that
would make it more rather then less difficult for Hamas to smuggle more
advanced weaponry into Gaza. Hamas, for its part, wanted conditions
that would relieve Israeli pressure on its operations and on Gaza in
general, allow it to claim victory, and increase its public support
among Palestinians vis-a-vis Fatah.
But it would appear that
decision-makers on both sides have been finding increasing reasons—and
perhaps facing increasing pressures—to halt the fighting.
According to informed analysis from various sources, from the very
beginning there has been some division of opinion within the Israeli
government about when and under what conditions to stop. As Amos Harel
and Avi Issacharoff reported in Haaretz
earlier this week ("Who is really winning the war in the Gaza Strip?)
Minister Ehud Barak is very fond of marathon consultation sessions.
This week he invited to his office a group of reserve generals who all
retired from active duty in recent years. All but one advised Barak to
end the operation quickly and withdraw from Gaza before things started
to get more complicated. The most effective Israeli deterrence, they
said, had already been achieved by the end of last week. When Barak
asked just when, in their opinion, Israel ought to pull out of Gaza,
most of the participants answered: Yesterday. This week, the defense
minister was convinced that the operation had exhausted its usefulness.
Minister Tzipi Livni, too, who at the operation's outset had waged
fierce battles with Barak over questions of substance, public credit and
political dividends, now holds the same view. But the lousy relations
among the Livni-Barak-[Prime Minister] Olmert triumvirate have created a
balance of fear: None of them wants to be painted as the soft "dove"
throwing a wrench in the military campaign and dictating a swift end to
This triumvirate, including Olmert, seem to have reached the collective conclusion that enough is enough.
have speculated that they wanted to take this step before Barack
Obama's inauguration, or perhaps just before something went terribly
wrong. It is also possible that the Israeli government has received
international assurances, confidential or semi-public, that some serious
measures will be taken to control the flow of more advanced weaponry to
Hamas. It may mean something that in UN Secretary-General Ban
Ki-Moon's statement on Friday
calling for a unilateral cease-fire declaration—which he delivered
standing next to Hamas's bitter enemy Mahmoud Abbas—Moon spoke
explicitly of the need for a "durable and sustainable" cessation of
violence, since that phrase has become a diplomatic code. (Or, on the
other hand, that may mean nothing in particular.)
=> In the
meantime, there were also signs that elements in the Hamas leadership
were starting to feel increasingly shaken and threatened by the Israeli
assault, enough that they felt some urgency about stopping the fighting.
to a point, Hamas could presumably regard the death and suffering of
Palestinians at Israeli hands as a propaganda bonanza from which it
could only benefit. But Hamas's own military and organizational
apparatus are considerably more vulnerable to Israeli attack than, say,
Hezbollah's. All during the war between Hezbollah and Israel in the
summer of 2006, for example, Hezbollah could continue to rain thousands
of medium-range Iranian rockets on northern Israel, turning cities like
Haifa into ghost towns. In the current round of fighting in Gaza, by
comparison, Hamas has continued to fire rockets at Israel, but in
That may help explain why at least some Hamas
figures gradually began to express interest in a cease-fire proposal
worked out by the Egyptian government—which is no friend of Hamas. Early on in this conflict
presented [Hamas] with a cease-fire proposal that, at first glance,
seemed to stand no chance of being accepted: an immediate, unconditional
cease-fire, entry into negotiations over a new hudna ("truce" - during
which the cease-fire would be maintained, in the absence of a
determination as to when the border crossings would be opened) and, in
the third stage, a renewal of the talks between Fatah and Hamas that
would lead to the formation of a unity government and require a
Palestinian Authority presence at the border crossings. Then, and only
then, would the Rafah crossing be opened - one of Hamas' prime
objectives in this war. The Egyptians were essentially telling the
organization that the crossing would remain closed for many more months.
times during the past 10 days, Hamas announced that the Egyptian
formula was unacceptable because it hurt Palestinian interests. Two days
ago, the tone changed. Salah al-Bardawil, the Hamas-Gaza representative
to the Cairo talks, held a press conference during which he praised the
Egyptian efforts to obtain a cease-fire. The Hamas representative in
Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, made similar statements. Bardawil even went so
far as to emphasize that the Egyptian initiative is the only one the
organization was considering, thereby dismissing all other mediation
efforts, including those of Qatar and Turkey.
But in these
matters there may be some disagreement between the Gaza-based portions
of the Hamas leadership and the top leadership based in Damascus, who
are presumably willing to fight to the last Gazan. As Harel &
Issacharoff reported this morning
a series of blows during the past 24 hours, the most severe since the
Israel Defense Forces operation began in the Gaza Strip 20 days ago,
Hamas was brought very close to surrender.
It is unlikely that we
will see white flags, because the group recognizes that this would have
a devastating effect on its image. But the Israeli military pressure
has destroyed most of the Palestinian defenses in the heart of Gaza
City, a day after the group had to agree in principle to the Egyptian
proposal for a cease-fire a deal it is not very happy with. [....]
latest move has is risks. The IDF is constantly concerned that a single
mistake may lead to mass killing of Palestinian civilians, or a
surprise attack by Hamas that may affect public opinion in Israel. This
nearly happened yesterday when UNRWA facilities were hit. [....]
it seems that at least the Hamas leadership in Gaza has began to fathom
the seriousness of its position. Two Hamas leaders in the Strip, Razi
Hamad and Ahmed Yusuf, accused the group's leadership in Damascus of
"bringing a terrible disaster on Gaza."
The two are considered
members of the pragmatic wing of the party, and charged the
Damascus-based leadership with making a terrible mistake in ordering
Hamas to foil the extension of the cease-fire agreement with Israel in
However, in Damascus it is not clear that the message
has been received. Ramadan Shalah, head of the Islamic Jihad, told Al
Jazeera that the Palestinians will continue their resistance in Gaza and
the city will not surrender because "victory is imminent."
head of the Hamas politburo, Khaled Meshal, who is central in the
decision that led to the events in the Strip, spoke in Damascus last
night of a Palestinian "victory in Gaza." [....]
all this means—assuming, of course, that the analysis is accurate—is
that what Hamas will actually do in response to the Israeli cease-fire
declaration is not easy to predict. So we don't now what happens next,
even in the short run.
I hope that Hamas finds some politically
viable way to accept a cease-fire. This would bring the fighting and
destruction to a stop—at least for the moment, and perhaps even for a
while. Then it will become possible to assess the human and material
costs of this mini-war and to consider its possible long-term political
I don't pretend to know at this point what those
will be (even assuming that fighting doesn't simply resume soon, which
it might). But I would be willing to offer one surmise. It has become a
standard cliché among journalists, pundits, and other analysts to
proclaim that one political consequence of this blow-up will be to
strengthen support for Hamas among Palestinians. Maybe, but I'm
inclined to doubt it, and it certainly doesn't strike me as inevitable.
I have no doubt that, for many Palestinians, these events have further
inflamed anger and hatred against Israel. But once the aftermath begins
to sink in, some of those same Palestinians might also conclude that
Hamas helped to bring "a terrible disaster on Gaza" with nothing to show
for it—which is in fact what happened.
Of course, if the Hamas
leadership makes a calculation along the lines I have just suggested,
that might also give them an incentive to reject a cease-fire right now.
all this is speculation. I guess we'll see. Meanwhile, let's hope for
the best. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis deserve this unending
UPDATE - Sunday, January 18:
Hamas and other "Palestinian resistance factions" allied with it have
responded by declaring a temporary cease-fire in Gaza. According to the
A statement read by a Hamas spokesman said the group would hold fire for a
week to give Israel time to withdraw its forces from the Gaza Strip.
The move came hours after a unilateral Israeli ceasefire came into effect. [....]
people are hoping that a ceasefire will last, but no-one on either side
of the border will be surprised if the fighting starts up again, our
correspondent adds. [....]