Nov 22: Israeli-Gaza ceasefire holds

November 22, 2012

A ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians appeared to be holding on Thursday after eight days of fighting in the Gaza Strip that claimed more than 160 lives.

Several rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel shortly after the ceasefire came into force late on Wednesday, according to Israeli police, but there were no casualties and no sign of an Israeli response.

Under the truce, which will be guaranteed by Egypt on the Palestinian side, Israel agreed to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air including incursions and targeting of individuals”. In exchange it committed “all Palestinian factions” to “stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel including rocket attacks and all attacks along the border”.

Gazans awoke to discover the ceasefire had survived its first few hours. The mosque loudspeakers, largely silenced over the past week of fighting, resumed their dawn calls to prayer.

The area’s diminished and struggling fishing fleet once again put to sea, albeit under the watch of Israeli gunboats and constrained by tight restrictions on where they can work.

Gaza City’s notorious traffic jams once again began to build as Palestinians returned to work, or to clean up the wreckage of their shops and businesses. Convenience stores and cafes pulled up the shutters for the first time in a week.

But the incessant buzz of the Israeli drones, like an annoying unseen insect, is a constant reminder that a halt to the rockets is not an end to conflict.

Leaders on both sides were quick to claim victory. Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, said at a press conference in Cairo that Israel had “failed in its adventure” when it launched attacks on Gaza and had been forced to accept Palestinian terms.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said Israel had destroyed thousands of missiles as well as Hamas installations.

The conflict has claimed the lives of at least 161 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, while five Israelis died.

Many people in Gaza regard the ceasefire as a victory for Hamas, which is seen as having resisted a deliberate escalation in violence by Netanyahu, in order to bolster support in January’s general election.

The truce – announced in Cairo by Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton – included a pledge to open border crossings. That could ease the five-year blockade of the coastal enclave, a key point certain to be the focus of differing interpretations as the dust settles.

But even as the truce was being announced, Netanyahu warned more “forceful” action might be required if the ceasefire failed, a reference to a threatened ground invasion of Gaza which was postponed by Israel after pressure from the US president.

Speaking at a press conference, Netanyahu said the operation had destroyed “thousands of missiles” as well as Hamas installations. Israel could not “sit with their arms folded” under attack, he said. He also repeated his veiled threat of a wider army operation if the ceasefire failed: “I know there are citizens expecting a more severe military action, and perhaps we shall need to do so.”

Netanyahu’s statement came as an instant poll by Israel’s Channel 2 television revealed that 70% of Israelis opposed the ceasefire deal.

Meshaal, speaking in Cairo, welcomed the ceasefire and said “the Israeli conspiracy” that had sought election propaganda and to “test Egypt” had “failed in its objectives”.

After the deal was struck Barack Obama called Netanyahu to commend him for agreeing to the Egyptian proposal and told him he would seek more money for the Iron Dome defence system that has protected Israel from rocket attacks.

Israel launched well over 1,500 air strikes and other attacks on targets in Gaza, while more than 1,000 rockets pounded Israel after the fighting began on 14 November.

Announcing the ceasefire in Cairo, Clinton commended Egypt’s mediation. “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 for regional stability and peace.”

She also thanked Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, for his mediation efforts and pledged to work with partners in the region “to consolidate this progress, improve conditions for the people of Gaza, and provide security for the people of Israel”.

Despite securing support from western governments for its initial military operation against Hamas, Israel had failed to win US and European backing for a ground invasion as a series of key US allies in the region, led by Egypt and Turkey, strongly protested against the Israeli assault.

The agreed truce, mediated by Morsi and his spy chief, Mohamed Shehata, came after days of talks and frantic shuttle diplomacy involving regional leaders, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and Clinton.

The deal as it stands – despite comments by Clinton that efforts would continue for a wider settlement – leaves considerable areas of friction and uncertainty. However, an Israeli government source said, following the ceasefire agreement, an “ongoing dialogue will start within 24 hours” covering underlying issues of concern to both parties. They include the further relaxation of border restrictions and the issue of targeted assassinations.