There they went again – or did they? The war between Israel and Hamas had all the hallmarks of a tragic movie watched several times too many: airstrikes pounding Gaza, leaving death and destruction in their wake; rockets launched aimlessly from the Strip, spreading terror on their path; Arab states expressing outrage at Israel’s brute force; Western governments voicing understanding for its exercise of self-defence. The actors were faithful to the script: Egypt negotiated a ceasefire, the two protagonists claimed victory, civilians bore the losses.
Yet if this was an old war, it was fought on a new battleground. It was the first Israeli-Arab confrontation since the wave of Arab uprisings hit in early 2011, and Islamists rose to power. Hamas was better equipped and battle-ready and had exchanged its partnership with U.S. foes for one with Washington’s allies. Egypt is ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent organisation, which made its reputation partly by lambasting its predecessors for accommodating Israel and abandoning Palestinians to their fate. In this first real-life test of the emerging regional order, protagonists sought to identify, clarify and, wherever possible, shape the rules of the game. The end result is a truce that looks very much like its predecessors, only this time guaranteed by a new Egypt and occurring in a transformed environment. If it is to be more durable than those past, key requirements of both Israel and the Palestinians will need to be addressed.
Israel was keenly aware of the transformed landscape, wary of it, but also determined to show that these changes change nothing. With Egypt in Brotherhood hands, it sensed that Hamas was feeling invulnerable, confident that Israel had lost its freedom of action, limited in what it could do against Gaza for fear of provoking Cairo and jeopardising diplomatic ties. Israel’s military operation could be interpreted as a reply to rocket attacks. Yet, the chronology of events, precise targeting (eg, of Hamas’s principal military leader) and overwhelming response suggest more than that. Israeli decision-makers were delivering a message: if Hamas thinks it enjoys a cloak of immunity, if Cairo thinks it can deter Jerusalem, think again.
Turn this logic upside down, and you have Hamas’s perspective. Egypt long had been the wall against which Israel would back the Palestinian Islamist movement, President Mubarak and his colleagues not so secretly wishing for the pummelling that would end Islamist rule in Gaza. The wall, Hamas believes, has since become its strategic depth. By standing its ground, Hamas was measuring the support it could expect from countries that have the resources and international connections its previous allies lacked, prodding them to do more, seeking political dividends from the new regional configuration. It was discovering whether, by substituting Egypt, Qatar and Turkey for Syria and Iran, it had traded up. It was trying to convey its own message: rules have changed. The Arab world is different. Israel must live with it.
For Egypt’s leaders, the test had come much too soon. They still are finding their way, uneasily balancing competing interests. Their immediate priority is economic, which pushes them to reassure the West and deny any intention to upend relations with Israel. But they have domestic constituencies too, as well as a longstanding creed and history of denouncing previous rulers for selling out Palestinians. Passivity in the face of Gaza’s suffering would expose their impotence and undermine their credibility.
The conflict next door also helped shed light on the balance of power at home. Still a creature of Mubarak’s regime, the military-security establishment has its interests when dealing with Gaza: cut Hamas down to size; maintain working relations with its Israeli counterpart; and, ensure Egypt does not assume responsibility for the chaotic Palestinian territory, becoming its sole exit to the outside world. Today’s Muslim Brotherhood civilian leadership might be animated by other concerns; physical boundaries matter less, and closer ties to Islamist-ruled Gaza appeal more. Whether the crossing between Egypt and Gaza opens up, as provided for in the ceasefire agreement, will help elucidate the state of this internal tug of war.
At this point, the balance sheet is not absolutely clear. Israel showed it would not be cowed by the Islamist wave and that it retained both freedom of action and Western backing. But it hesitated before a ground invasion and felt compelled to reach a quick ceasefire that did not clearly address its central concerns; among reasons for its reluctance was greater mindfulness about inflicting irreparable damage to relations with Cairo. Israel also benefited from strong Western support, principally from the U.S. But Washington’s apprehension about the conflict dragging on and negatively affecting broader regional dynamics was palpable; in the end, the U.S. evidently pressed Prime Minister Netanyahu to endorse the Egyptian proposal.
For its part, Hamas can claim a major triumph: it showed it would not be intimidated and has basked in unparalleled visits to Gaza by Arab officials. The ceasefire agreement promised greater access of Gaza to the outside world, a considerable and long-sought achievement. The Islamist movement proved itself the central player in Palestinian politics. In Gaza, demonstrators conveyed a genuine sense of triumph. Still, the picture cannot be said to be entirely positive: if Arab rhetoric was more combative, the actions were somewhat stale. Prisoners of their own dilemmas, Egypt’s rulers offered little fundamentally new: outraged denunciations, the recall of their ambassador to Israel, behind-the-scenes mediation and cooperation with Washington in finding a solution.
For now, the immediate objective must be to ensure fighting truly stops and that the other commitments mentioned in the ceasefire agreement are fulfilled. There is good reason for scepticism given the history of such undertakings and the imprecision in the text itself. But new dynamics in the Middle East potentially could make this time different. Cairo has an incentive to ensure success; it has much to offer – politically, diplomatically and, together with its allies in Ankara and Doha, materially – to Hamas; and the Islamist movement would be loath to alienate Morsi’s Egypt in the way it rarely hesitated to alienate Mubarak’s. By the same token, Israel can take solace in the fact that, even when governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt proved pragmatic and eager to avoid escalation. If it does not wish this situation to change, it too will have to live up to its undertakings. Finally, the U.S. and President Obama likely acquired new credibility and leverage in Israel by virtue of the unquestioned support they offered Jerusalem; those assets can be used to ensure compliance with the ceasefire agreement.
Many unanswered questions remain: whether the ceasefire’s ambiguity will be its undoing, as has happened in the past; whether Egypt will effectively monitor implementation and whether it will live up to its own commitments, namely opening the Rafah crossing to Gaza; whether other third-party monitors, European perhaps, will be involved; how the U.S. will meet its parallel pledge to Israel to curb weapons smuggling into Gaza; whether Egyptian cooperation will be needed to that end and, if so, be forthcoming; and whether Iranian factional allies will seek to reignite a conflict that serves Tehran’s and its Syrian ally’s interests.
One thing is clear. Whatever else it turns out to be, the new order does not look kind to the non-Islamist side of the Palestinian national movement. With attention focused on Gaza, Islamists doing the fighting and the negotiating, the Palestinian bid for a UN status upgrade pushed to the sidelines, the Palestinian Authority looking irrelevant and powerless, and West Bank protesters sporting Hamas’s flag for the first in a long time, President Abbas and Fatah, as well as prospects for a two-state solution, are on the losing end. Then again, what else is new?
Advancing a genuine peace will not be easy. At a minimum, and as a first step:
- Egypt should relaunch an energetic push toward reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, so that the PA can fully return to Gaza, and a unified government can be formed, elections held and negotiations resumed between Israel and a patched-up national movement; and
- it should use its reaffirmed cooperation with the U.S. to try to persuade Washington to adopt a more flexible, pragmatic attitude toward Palestinian unity.
Ultimately, as the dust settles and guns turn silent, much more will be known about the new regional map – how it works, who sets the rules, how far different parties will go, whether the obstacles continually encountered in the past can be overcome. This short war has been, as President Obama might put it, a teachable moment. A pity the education came at such a high price. And that, once more, all the wrong people – the civilians on both sides – were asked to foot the bill.