The aftermath of the ceasefire will determine who lost and won what in the Gaza bloodletting. By unilaterally declaring a halt to the carnage, Israel has deprived Hamas of what it appeared to be achieving in the Cairo-mediated ceasefire talks: de facto recognition by Israel that it has to come to grips with the Islamists to ensure its security.
Israel needs to show that its offensive ended Islamist rocket attacks on southern Israel. Interviewed on Al Jazeera Hamas' Beirut spokesman Osama Hamdan suggested the Islamists would hold their rocket fire only if all Israeli forces are withdrawn from Gaza - a demand Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack indicated Israel was not about to meet immediately. The Israeli intention to temporarily keep troops in Gaza to see whether Hamas still has the stomach for resistance and until arrangements are in place to prevent Hamas from replenishing its military stocks puts the Islamists on the spot. Failing to live up to their assertion that they will resist the Israelis in Gaza until Israeli troops have been withdrawn, will open Hamas to charges that it has succumbed under the weight of the Israeli bombardment. Al Jazeera reports that since Israel unilaterally declared its ceasefire an hour ago and an hour before the ceasefire is to take account, some six Palestinian rockets have been fired into Israel. Hamas' military wing claimed to have fired three of those six rockets.
Hamdan said Israel could only guarantee a stop of Palestinian attacks on Israel through talks with the Islamists. "If those troops stay on Gaza soil, people will resist that. Nobody can guarantee anything unless we see something on the ground. If they left Gaza, the situation will be evaluated and then we can talk about new decisions maybe... Unless there is a ceasefire agreed no one can guarantee anything. … They have to understand they have to talk to the resistance. Its useless to talk to (Palestine Authority President Mahmoud) Abbas," Hamdan said.
Israel hopes the aftermath of its offensive will accelerate a pre-war decline in Hamas' popularity among Palestinians. Israeli military analysts say they have shattered Hamas' political cohesion and ability to govern Gaza. If true, that could produce a result that complicates rather ensures Israeli security: the rise of more more militant Jihadi groups as well as chaos and anarchy in Gaza.
Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Martin Kramer writing on his blog, Sandbox, dismisses asserts that the 18-month Israeli long siege of Gaza had failed to weaken Hamas, citing polling results of the Jerusalem Media & Communication Centre:
Hamas' pre-war declining popularity highlights the importance of its being able to claim the war in Gaza achieved the lifting of the siege. "Hamas was losing popularity before this operation. It was losing popularity because it had failed to open the crossings," says prominent American Palestinian academic Rashid Khalidi. Veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Milhelm concurs. "Hamas wanted to weaken the Israeli siege because they have been hurt politically and economically because of the siege," Milhem says.
Kramer, a proponent of continued economic blockage of Gaza as long as Hamas retains power, represents one extreme of the debate on how to build on the rubble of Gaza to achieve durable understandings between Israel and the Palestinians that can lead to peace. "Economics will be crucial when the guns fall silent and the rockets stop falling. Here, too, Israel and the international community have to remain steadfast if they want an outcome that doesn't just stop the violence today, but also provides hope for tomorrow. When the dust settles, the people of Gaza will be desperate for a return to some normalcy—one denied to them under the rule of jihadists who fanatically tell them they must suffer on the deluded promise that Israel will be destroyed, and that Gazans will one day "return" to repossess all that they lost 60 years ago. Normalcy can be restored only if the needs of Gazans are answered by the international community and the legitimate Palestinian Authority—without the Hamas middleman," Kramer says.
Kramer believes that a continued blockade depriving Hamas of its goal of securing the opening of Gaza's border crossings and its callousness in sacrificing innocent Palestinian lives to achieve its political goals will accelerate its declining popularity. More likely is that Palestinian anger will focus on perceived Israeli savagery and to the degree that it impacts Hamas will see its more militant rivals gain popularity. Hamas is likely to capitalize on the political legitimacy conveyed upon it by yesterday's Arab summit in Doha and the ineffectiveness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' inability to tangibly play a role in ending the fighting or come to the assistance of the Gazans during and after the war. That legitimacy, however, will generate pressure on it to seek reconciliation with the Palestine Authority and deliver tangible economic and social results for ordinary Palestinians. Hamas assumes that three weeks of continuous images of carnage and suffering in Gaza, mounting anger and frustration at perceived Israeli insensitivity to civilian casualties and growing demands for an investigation into Israel's conduct of the war will make it increasingly difficult for Israel to maintain a siege of Gaza.
Assuming that Hamas indeed survives the Gaza war as a coherent political force, it will have to be seen by Palestinians as capable of helping them rebuild their shattered lives by rebuilding the strip's damaged infrastructure and economy. Palestinian surveyors estimate the infrastructure damage inflicted by Israel at $1.4 million. Helping Hamas confront this formidable task by channeling funds through the Palestine Authority would further healing of inter-Palestinian wounds, strengthen those within Hamas amenable to long-term accommodation with Israel albeit in the form of a multi-year truce rather than a definitive peace treaty and enhance its ability to fend off threats by more militant, if not, nihilist Islamist forces.
Those threats are part of a hardening of public attitudes towards Israel across the Middle East. This hardening could complicate Arab efforts to embed an Israeli Palestinian arrangement in a regional peace agreement with Israel based on the unanimously accepted Arab peace plan put forward in 2002 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Already, Syria has suspended its Turkish-mediated peace talks with Israel. "The most dangerous thing is that liberal people are telling me they are thinking of, or are the process of…going back to their Islamic roots because it's starting to be clear to everyone that (the Gaza war) is becoming a crusade war against Islam… ," The National quoted Saudi political analyst Ahmad al Farraj as saying.
Prominent American commentator Fawaz Gerges, writing in The Nation, reports that he just returned from the Middle East where he witnessed how the Gaza war is radicalizing the region's public opinion. "Shown endlessly on Arab and Muslim television stations, the massive killing of civilians is fueling rage against Israel and its superpower patron, the United States, among mainstream and moderate voices who previously believed in co-existence with the Jewish state. Now, they are questioning their basic assumptions and raising doubts about Israel's future integration into the region. … I was struck by the widespread popular support for Hamas--from college students and street vendors to workers and intellectuals. Very few ventured criticism of Hamas, and many said they felt awed by the fierce resistance put forward by its fighters. Israel's onslaught on Gaza has effectively silenced critics of Hamas and politically legitimized the militant resistance movement in the eyes of many previously skeptical Palestinians and Muslims," Gerges says.
Israel's perceived wanton disregard for the deaths of civilians will not have gone unnoticed by Islamists across the Middle East, particularly in pro-Western nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. "They have seen the barely concealed pleasure of the regimes that run those states. The message is clear: the struggle for the future of this region is going to be uncompromising and bloody. ... Islamists are likely to conclude from Gaza that Arab regimes backed by the US and some European states will go to any lengths in their struggle against Islamism. Many Sunni Muslims will turn to the salafi-jihadists, al-Qaida included, who warned Hamas and others about the kind of punishment being visited on them now. Mainstream movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbullah will find it hard to resist the radical trend. The middle ground is eroding fast.," warns former EU negotiator with Hamas and other Islamist group and ex-British intelligence agent Alastair Crooke.
This week's Israeli memorandum of understanding with the United States that involves Washington hands-on in policing Gaza's border with Egypt in a bid to prevent Hamas from rebuilding its military capability will give the US enhanced leverage. The Obama administration will not want to be seen to be a hands on party to efforts to undercut Hamas by depriving already battered Palestinians from the basic they need to reconstruct their lives. It would also be in line with Obama's expected shift in emphasis of America's war on terror. "You use force with people who already made a career choice as terrorists; that will not help you preventing young men and women going down that path… We can t shoot or kill our way to that achievement," Council of Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, a candidate for a senior role in Obama's Middle East policy team told Al Jazeera.
Speaking in an interview with The Washington Post, Obama on Saturday sought to manage expectations of what his administration may initially be able to do in the Middle East. “Most people have a pretty good sense about what the outlines of a compromise would be, Obama said, noting that the problem is political weakness on both sides. Obama said he aimed “to provide a space where trust can be built” and pointed to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s suggestion “to build some concrete deliverables that people can see,” such as greater security for Israelis and economic benefits for Palestinians."
A US Army Strategic Studies Institute analysis published weeks before the launch of the Israeli offensive concluded that ‘Israel’s stance towards the democratically-elected Palestinian government headed by Hamas in 2006, and towards Palestinian national coherence – legal, territorial, political and economic – has been a major obstacle to substantive peacemaking.’ The study's authors said they had detected signs that Hamas was considering a shift of its position towards Israel: "Hamas moderates have, however, signaled that it implicitly recognizes Israel, and that even a tahdiya (calming, minor truce) or a hudna, a longer-term truce, obviously implies recognition. Khalid Mish’al states: ‘We are realists,’ and there is ‘an entity called Israel,’ but ‘realism does not mean that you have to recognize the legitimacy of the occupation,’" the study says.
Drawing in those elements within Hamas willing to focus on political arrangements with Israel rather than military confrontation is likely to be facilitated by shifts in power within Palestinian politics as well as within Fatah, the Palestinian group that dominates the Palestine Authority. "Mahmoud Abbas is battling for his political survival. Abbas is under tremendous pressure and criticism for the absolute failure of all his initiatives since he assumed the presidency in 2004. …. Increasingly it is important to replace him with someone who can more authoritatively represent his people," said Middle East analyst Mouin Rabbani on Al Jazeera. Adds Gerges: "Regardless of how this war ends, Hamas will likely emerge as a more powerful political force than before and will likely top Fatah, the ruling apparatus of President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority."
In a bid to counter increasingly militant discourse and a reflection of Arab concern about the radicalizing effect of the Gaza war, Sheikh Zaid Shakir, an Islamic scholar at the UAE-funded Zaytuna Institute in California argues against widespread calls in the Arab world for the killing of Israeli civilians to achieve Palestinian goals and who have reverted to anti-Semitic rhetoric. "Such calls for indiscriminate killing have nothing to do with our religion. Our Prophet forbade the killing of women and children in combat... Discarding such teachings not only allows Israel to claim a moral equivalency between empty words threatening the death of Jewish children and Israeli actions that actually result in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children, it also leads many Muslims to miss the opportunity to demonstrate the loftiness of the ethical standard our Prophet defined for us. We are the followers of a merciful Prophet and not the ideological and philosophical children of those who have introduced the idea that the slaughter of an opponent’s civilian population is an acceptable stratagem or consequence of warfare," Shakir writes in The National.
With Islamists, whether more moderate or Jihadi, emerging politically strengthened from the Israeli offensive, diplomatic efforts are likely to focus on preventing the two-state solution becoming a casualty of the war in Gaza. “The war on Gaza has killed the two-state solution by making it clear to Palestinians that the only acceptable Palestine would have fewer rights than the Bantustans created by apartheid South Africa. The only acceptable alternative is a single state for Jews and Palestinians with equal rights for all,” says British Pakistani author Tariq Ali. To do so, the Obama administration will have to secure a clear, unambiguous Israeli commitment to the establishment of a viable, independent, sovereign Palestinian state rather than Palestinian recognition of Israel. The US Army Strategic Studies Institute study concludes that Israel’s failure so far to give that commitment is at the root of hitherto failed efforts to achieve an Israeli Palestinian peace. “It is frequently stated that Israel or the United States cannot ‘meet’ with Hamas (although meeting is not illegal; materially aiding terrorism is, if proven) because the latter will not ‘recognize Israel’. In contrast, the PLO has ‘recognized’ Israel’s right to exist and agreed in principle to bargain for significantly less land than the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it is not clear that Israel has ever agreed to accept a Palestinian state. The recognition of Israel did not bring an end to violence, as wings of various factions of the PLO did fight Israelis, especially at the height of the Second (al- Aqsa) Intifada. Recognition of Israel by Hamas, in the way that it is described in the Western media, cannot serve as a formula for peace,” the study says.