The headlines may trumpet “truce” and “ceasefire” but Israelis interpret the current quiet on the Gaza border as the calm before an inevitable storm.
With little to no faith in the ability of Hamas to restrain itself or its people from attacks on Israel, residents of the area that borders Gaza in Israel are savored the merciful quiet that began on Thursday morning — because they don’t believe it’s going to last.
The truce, which began at 6 AM, came after Egyptian envoy Omar Suleiman shuttled between the Hamas leadership and the Israeli security services working to broker what Hamas calls a “tahadiya,” which means a “calming down” in Arabic. The Israeli media has widely adopted the term; few really believe the shooting will stop for long, so it seems a bit absurd to call this obviously finite truce a ceasefire.
No one knows exactly when the ceasefire will be violated — whether it is a matter of days, weeks, or months: when the first missile will crack the silence and represent the opening gun to what is expected to be a major military operation in Gaza. The pessimism is based on bitter experience — the Palestinian record on honoring ceasefire agreements is poor, to put it mildly.
So if no one believes it will last, why bother? The overriding reasoning of the Israeli leaders behind the agreement to it is to show that their side everything possible has done to avoid bloodshed — so that when the war in Gaza — which is viewed as inevitable, occurs — the world will know that Israel did all it could.
“Since the repercussions of an operation could be grave, it is necessary first to try the other alternative — so that every mother liable to lose her son in the Gaza alleyways will know. So that every civilian in the Gaza envelope liable to get hit during the fighting with Hamas will know. So that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will know that Israel did not choose a military move, which the Egyptians fear, before giving a chance to the diplomatic move they initiated,” wrote Ha’aretz commentator Arie Shavit, after sitting down with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak.
On Israeli television and radio all day, Palestinians in Gaza and residents in Sderot were asked by the announcers how it felt to wake up to a morning where presumably, it was unnecessary to check the skies or stay alert for the next incoming missile warning.
The Palestinian interviewee sounded more cheerful than the Israeli, “God willing, I will soon be able to cross into Israel and work and be able to put food on the table for my 13 children.”
His Israeli counterpart was more skeptical. “We’ll enjoy it while we can.”
Most are predicting the quiet will end sooner rather than later. Even the announcement of the deal from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office was subdued, with a spokesman saying, “no one here is cracking open the champagne and declaring Hamas has beaten its swords into plowshares.”
Indeed. Even as the ceasefire was being hammered out, Hamas television was broadcasting a helpful guide to kidnapping Israeli soldiers. The news of the television show made headlines in Israel, and it was not a confidence-builder. Neither were the comments by a Hamas spokesman, who told the media, as the guns went silent, that certainly such the agreement “doesn’t mean the end of resistance.”
Numerous observers in Israel have sharply criticized the ceasefire as a valuable political and strategic victory for Hamas, striking a fatal blow to Israel’s policy of refusing to negotiate with parties who refuse to recognize the country’s existence and vow to destroy it and giving it precious time to rearm.
Historian Michael Oren wrote that “it represents a historic accomplishment for the jihadist forces most opposed to peace, and defeat for the Palestinians who might still have been Israel’s partners.”
Commentator Jonathan Halevy called it “a golden opportunity” for Hamas “to expand its military build-up for the next round of terror and violence.”
The agreement was characterized as a “deal with the devil” by respected commentator Sever Plotzker: “Without making any diplomatic-ideological-strategic concession, Hamas was recognized by Israel as the legitimate master of the Gaza Strip, the authentic representative of the Palestinian people, and a partner for agreements of one kind or another.”
As for the Israeli public, Thursday’s political cartoon in Yedioth Aharonoth, Israel’s most popular mass-circulation daily, accurately reflected the mood of resigned cynicism.
Two masked Hamas fighters with rockets strapped to their back ask the Israeli soldiers sitting on a tank, “Excuse me, what time is it?” asks one of the Hamas fighters. The Israeli soldier checks his watch and answers, “It’s five minutes before 6 o’clock.”
And yet, even a tahadiya is a welcome break for the people of the western Negev and Gaza.
For months, a seemingly endless and pointless cycle of violence caused trauma to ordinary people on both sides of the border. Barrages of Qassams were launched daily at Sderot and the many farming communities along the Gaza border, more than 4,000 in total Several people were killed and most children slept in bomb shelters.
In a more recent development, longer-range Grad rockets were launched at Ashkelon, which was previously considered out of range. One Grad landed on a shopping mall, severely wounding a toddler and her mother.
In response, the IDF’s Golani brigade and the Israeli Air Force mounted daily reprisals, often firing at militants hiding in densely populated civilian areas — meaning that innocent bystanders were inevitably killed on a painfully regular basis.
The Israeli government also closed the Gaza borders to shipments of all goods except fuel and essential goods.
This, however, did not stop the flow of arms into Gaza, via tunnels that were dug under the fence that separates the southern Gaza city of Rafah from the Egypt. According to Palestinian sources, the average tunnel owner can make up to $500,000 in three months from smuggling — and not only arms, but also cigarettes, clothes and a wide variety of goods are difficult to obtain in Gaza.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is, not surprisingly, vociferous in his opposition to the tahadiya — calling it “inconceivable” and claiming that it will only give Hamas some time to re-arm. He ignores the fact that Hamas has been steadily re-arming all along, even under daily IAF fire. Every time one tunnel is discovered and blown up, another one is completed.
There are many voices calling for a massive IDF ground operation in Gaza. But Israel’s military correspondents have all pointed out that it might be easy to enter Gaza, but it is very difficult to exit. Channel 10’s Alon Ben-David, who is also the Israel correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly, waxed a bit poetic during a recent evening news broadcast when he pointed out that “the mud of Gaza is very thick.” There is really no way for a conventional army to hunt down all the individuals who launch rockets out of densely populated Gaza and then disappear into their densely populated neighborhoods.
Noam Shalit, the father of captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, is furious that the return of his son was not included amongst Israel’s conditions for the tahadiya. Gilad was abducted in June 2006, from Kerem Shalom, an army base on Israeli territory, 150 meters from Gaza, during an operation by Hamas militants. The Hamas government has since considered the 20 year-old corporal their most valuable bargaining chip.
“You have abandoned Gilad,” was the Yedioth newspaper’s banner headline, above a photo of Noam Shalit. Maariv used a similar headline, reporting that Shalit the father, who is known for his even temper, wrote an angry and unprecedented letter to Prime Minister Olmert, in which he threatened to petition Israeli’s High Court of Justice to prevent the tadahiya.
In the eyes of Defense Minister Barak, there was little to lose in agreeing to the truce, no matter how it turns out. He told the French newspaper Le Monde. “If it’s broken, we’ll have greater legitimacy. If it holds, it’s an opportunity to protect our citizens exposed to rocket fire, and to free the soldier Shalit.”
Meanwhile, the people of Israel and Gaza are hoping for a few nights of calm and a little time to recoup their emotional energy — until the ceasefire is violated and the status quo-ante returns.