'I want peace, but there won't be any'

Sat, Nov 24, 2012, 00:00

As the tentative ceasefire holds, Israel and Hamas both claim victory in this week’s conflict, while asking whether it actually changed anything

It takes just 10 minutes to walk across no-man’s-land between the Erez checkpoint, in southern Israel, and the northern tip of Gaza, but the landscape changes so radically in those 10 minutes that it can be a disorienting journey. On the Israeli side a smooth multilane carriageway leads to a state-of-the-art border complex where policemen wearing shades and flak vests guard the doors. A sleek American-style cafe sells a dozen varieties of coffee and pastries, and does a busy trade from all the military activity in the area. The surroundings are quiet and virtually empty.

On the Gazan side, where an Israeli-led blockade prevents most residents from coming and going, and development has been held back for decades, the border post is a dilapidated prefab with a sheet of A4 paper marked “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” pinned to the wall. Horses and carts trundle alongside clapped-out cars on roads that are pocked and strewn with debris.

Where there was silence, now there’s a cacophony of engines and car horns.

Events of the past week have accentuated the contrast. Over the eight days of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the Israelis fired more than 1,500 missiles at locations in the narrow, densely populated Gaza Strip. The bombardment has left a long trail of razed government offices and huge, ashen craters where buildings once stood.

Israel’s misgivings

But, yesterday, physical contrast was matched by a difference in the general mood. In Israel the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that came into effect on Wednesday night has prompted a sober, mixed reaction. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has declared himself satisfied that the operation met its objective of severely disrupting Hamas, and Israel was united in cheering the success of its new missile defence system, which the military says intercepted 84 per cent of rockets coming from the Gaza Strip.

But even though many Israelis are relieved that fighting has come to an end and that a risky ground invasion has been averted, others have raised misgivings about how it was handled. A few hundred residents in southern Israel took to the streets to denounce the deal, fearing that after a brief pause they would once again be the targets of regular rocket attacks.

With a general election just two months away the political consensus of the past week has evaporated, and opposition figures have criticised Netanyahu for not going farther and ordering a ground invasion. “I think the goals of the operation weren’t achieved,” says Shaul Mofaz, the leader of the centrist Kadima party. A poll conducted for Channel 2 News in Israel, published just before the ceasefire came into force, shows 70 per cent of Israelis oppose it.

Celebrations in Gaza

In Gaza, meanwhile, the message being projected by Hamas is of unity and triumph. Despite having lost some of its senior figures and seen much of its infrastructure destroyed, Hamas declared Thursday a national holiday and held well-attended, joyous rallies across the territory. Celebratory gunfire rang out, and Kalashnikov-toting Hamas militants in balaclavas walked the streets, receiving cheers and handshakes from passers-by.

“The resistance won,” says 31-year-old Ahmad Saleh, whose home in Gaza’s Jabaliya district was left barely standing when Israeli missiles flattened his neighbour’s house on Monday. Not far away, 10-year-old Badr Mahroun has a green Hamas flag wrapped around him and a full-sized imitation papier-mache RPG on his shoulder. “I’m carrying it because we won the war,” the boy says.

On both sides, however, people are asking the same question: has this week’s conflict actually changed anything? In some respects it has.

Israel regards the success of its new Iron Dome missile shield as a military game-changer that will give more peace of mind to its people and pause for thought to its enemies. Conversely, the fact that rockets fired from Gaza reached Tel Aviv, causing air-raid sirens to sound in Israel’s largest city for the first time in 20 years, was seen by Hamas as dealing a psychological blow to Israel and demonstrating its own technical prowess.

On the diplomatic front the crisis has ushered in some intriguing changes. It placed Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a key role as mediator between Hamas and Israel. He emerges with his stature as a regional power broker enhanced.

The crisis also raises the political profile of Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, but Hamas made noticeably positive noises after the ceasefire about the need for Palestinian factions to unite: a prerequisite, many believe, for any long-term settlement.

To optimists the ceasefire deal, or at least the manner in which it was achieved, with the US and Egypt cajoling Israel and Hamas over the line, offers hope and a template for future peace talks.

Questions for the future

But this week’s outcome also leaves vital issues unresolved. The deal binds Israel to end attacks from land, sea and air, and to stop the assassination of Hamas leaders, while calling on Hamas and other Palestinian factions to end rocket attacks on Israel from within Gaza. But it steers largely clear of wider security questions. On the five-year blockade of Gaza, one of the most contentious points, it provides for an easing of Israeli restrictions on Gaza’s residents but does not set out how this will be done.

The region has been here before. In 2009 Israel and Hamas pulled back after a 22-day conflict, and it took many months before Gaza militants felt strong enough to resume firing rockets out of the territory. Both sides can claim that the past week has strengthened their positions, but the real prize, a breaking of the cycle that has just repeated itself once again, eludes them still.

Sitting on the promenade that runs along Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean shore this week in a lull between air-raid alerts, Eli Ezra, a former paratrooper in his late 30s, holds out little hope of a wider peace deal. “They say they want peace, but I don’t think they do,” he says of the Palestinians. “They’ve said they want to throw Israel into the sea. So sure, I want peace, but there won’t be any.”

Four days later, at Shifa hospital in Gaza, a 35-year-old traffic policeman, Mohammed Abu Zada, emerges from a coma after five days to hear that a ceasefire had been agreed. He suffered serious injures when his station, in the east of the territory, was hit by a missile. Asked whether he felt the time had come for a long-term settlement, he shakes his head firmly. “No,” he says. “You know, Israel can’t stick to any agreement. They can’t keep a promise.”

Back from the brink: Background to the conflict

What propelled Israelis and Palestinians towards their second war in four years, escalating a low-level tit-for-tat conflict to the brink of an Israeli invasion of Gaza? Explanations vary, but both sides say the spark for the crisis lay in some of their respective “red lines” being crossed.

Israel cites the firing of an anti-tank missile against its soldiers on November 10th, and a jump in the number of rockets fired into southern Israel , saying 700 were launched in the first 10 months of 2012. Hamas blames Israel’s decision to kill its top commander, Ahmed Al-Jaabari, on November 14th in Gaza City, breaking what Hamas says was a tacit ceasefire.

Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip seven years ago and has regularly used its airpower to deter Hamas and other Islamist groups from firing rockets into the Jewish state. Over three weeks in 2008-9, Israel bombarded then briefly invaded Gaza, hoping to stop the rockets. Operation Cast Lead killed 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Calm returned, but within months the exchanges resumed.

In the recent eight-day conflict, 167 Palestinians, including 37 children, were killed in Gaza. Of the 1,506 rockets fired from there, 800 struck Israel, killing four civilians and two soldiers.

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