Fragile peace

After eight days of battle, hopes of a lasting truce rest with a new power axis in the Middle East, writes Ruth Pollard in Gaza City.

As shop owners pushed open their metal shutters and signs of life returned to the streets of Gaza, the scars of eight deadly days of open warfare between Israel and Hamas marked a landscape already disfigured by years of conflict.

Dozens of families sat in mourning, their grief mixed with profound relief that the ceasefire was holding after 24 hours, while government buildings around the coastal city lay in ruins, crushed by more than 1500 Israeli military strikes across Gaza. Palestinians launched more than 1400 missiles in the conflict, killing six Israelis.

Both sides claimed victory to their respective audiences: Israel said it had destroyed much of Gaza's terrorist infrastructure, including weapons factories and rocket launchers, along with the assassination of several key Hamas leaders. And Hamas claimed a triumph - despite a high toll on Gaza's civilian population, Hamas and its affiliates were able to fire several long-range missiles towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, militants planted a bomb under a bus in Tel Aviv, wounding more than 20 people, and it managed to get an easing of border controls into the truce deal with Israel.

The Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, enjoyed broad support across Gaza for both the truce and its terms and people responded well to his demands that militant factions honour the ceasefire. On the other hand, one poll conducted by Israeli television indicated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to take the Israeli public with him, with 70 per cent saying they did not support a truce with Hamas.

But it was the realignment of regional powers on display in Gaza this week that proved most remarkable, showing that Hamas successfully pivoted away from its former backers, Iran and Syria, to embrace the Sunni coalition of Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf states. Amid Israel's aerial bombardment and a volley of rockets fired by Palestinians into southern Israel, a series of senior ministers visited Gaza, including Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and Egypt's Prime Minister, Hesham Kandil. On a visit to Shifa Hospital as dozens of dead and injured arrived in a convoy of ambulances and private cars, Davutoglu told Gazans: ''Your pain is our pain. Your destiny is our destiny and your future is our future.''

There were questions for both sides, too - how could Israel's army, purportedly using some of the best military technology in the world, kill so many civilians, including 33 children, in ''surgical'' air strikes? And how had Hamas and the other militant factions acquired missiles which had enough range to threaten Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? ''If the media aren't given a chance to ask a single question after an operation in which millions of Israelis were forced to sit in bomb shelters, that caused extensive property damage and produced psychological scarring that can't yet be assessed, we have a very big problem,'' one commentator wrote in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.


Gazans did not miss a beat when the ceasefire was announced. Dawn broke, and fishermen steered their boats out of the city's small harbour towards the horizon, hopeful of working their patch of the sea without the daily danger of artillery fire from Israel's navy boats. But even though the truce held on the first day, the conditions that led to the latest escalation remain. Gazans live under a partial land, sea and air blockade, imposed by Israel when Hamas won power in the 2006 elections. Egypt was a key part of that blockade, closing its Rafah border crossing until May 28 last year, when it began easing travel restrictions. Israel has also eased restrictions but many key products such as building materials and medical equipment remain tightly controlled. As a result, Gaza's economy is paralysed. For those living under these conditions, the pressure is almost unbearable.

Because of the unresolved conflict, many Israelis remain sceptical about what this latest ceasefire will bring. Gazans, too, are doubtful, but ever hopeful. For them, the end of this latest round of hostilities is just the beginning. The status quo is not even close to acceptable, they say.

To ask Gazans what they want from life is to hear a collection of achingly ordinary hopes and dreams: to visit family or study in the nearby West Bank, to access the medical care they need regardless of where it is provided, to legitimately buy the materials needed to build or repair their homes, to have safe drinking water and the hope of employment after university.

Many of the strip's 1.7 million people are refugees, descendants of those who fled homes on the land that is now Israel during the 1948 war over the creation of the Jewish state. More than 11,000 citizens were on the move again this week, after Israel dropped thousands of leaflets from the sky warning residents to evacuate immediately. By the time the bloody conflict ended on Wednesday night, 156 Palestinians, including 103 civilians had been killed - of them 33 were children, 13 were women and three were journalists, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said. At least 1000 Palestinians were wounded in the air strikes and artillery fire, including 247 children, 162 women and 12 journalists, who the centre says were deliberately targeted by Israel, a claim Israel denies.

Six Israelis died in the conflict and 240 were wounded, after militants in Gaza fired 1400 rockets into the country's south.

The ceasefire deal, mediated in Cairo by President Mohammed Mursi and his spy chief, Mohamed Shehata, included a promise from both sides to end hostilities and opened the possibility of relaxing border crossings - a key demand of all Gaza's militant factions.

On initial assessments, Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood, with Mursi at the helm, had passed the first real foreign policy test since it came to power, said Rami Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

''For the first time we have Arab governments reflecting public opinion in their foreign policy, and this is very rare,'' he said.

Mursi managed to do what his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, would not - balance the desire of the Egyptian people to confront Israel and support the Palestinians, while respecting US demands for a Hamas ceasefire. Also striking, Khouri said, was the role of regional players. ''The US is still an important player but they do not drive agendas like they used to - so the US and the Europeans are going to have to recalibrate their policies here to reflect the new reality,'' Khouri said. Mursi's role in bringing the eight-day conflict to an end was lauded by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. ''This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace,'' she said.

While there is every reason to be sceptical that the truce will last, it is a different kind of agreement to the ''calm for calm'' deal negotiated in previous ceasefires, said Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the Inter-national Crisis Group's Middle East program. ''The prior agreements have not fundamentally changed the nature of Gaza-Israel relations, whereas this document … if it is implemented in a meaningful way, will make a difference to life in Gaza and change the calculations for militants in Gaza.''

President Mursi was ''highly motivated'' to end the conflict as rapidly as possible, Thrall said, because a ground invasion from Israel would have been a disaster for Egyptians.

Mursi is not only dependent on a multibillion-dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund, but also substantial aid from the US and Europe, all of which would be threatened by a deterioration in relations between Egypt and Israel, Thrall said.There was another important development this week - the opening of indirect negotiations between the US and Hamas via Mursi, Thrall said.

The fact that Hamas has been strengthened and the Palestinian Authority further weakened may draw the two warring factions together for the first time in five years, Thrall said. ''There are enormous obstacles, but there are more factors working in favour of reconciliation than there have been before,'' he said.

Egypt had emerged as a very pragmatic regime, said Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. ''Egypt can induce Hamas to join with Fatah in some sort of agreement … and hopefully Israel will take advantage of this to get a more comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians,'' Maoz said. ''It is in the interests of Israel to have a Palestinian state next to it along 1967 lines, and this would include Gaza.'' Peace was not based on love, but mutual interests, Maoz said, and the interests of the Sunni Muslim coalition of the Saudis, the Gulf States, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan in containing Shiite Islam is in line with Israel's interests. There is now a new axis of power in the Middle East anchored by Egypt and Turkey, Maoz said.

Left out in the cold in developments is the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who appears intent on going to the United Nations General Assembly to seek enhanced status for Palestine.The US and some European governments are trying to convince Abbas to delay the resolution in the face of furious opposition from Israel. But he is damned either way - Palestinians will lose all faith in him if he fails to go to the UN, while Israel and the US will punish the authority if he does.

Either way, the fundamentals that will influence any peace agreement - Israel's settlement expansion inside 1967 borders, its security concerns, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the borders - are as far from being resolved as they ever were.