The Ceasefire

Uri Avnery

And suddenly: quiet. No Qassams. No mortar shells. The tanks are not rolling. The aircraft are not bombing. Children venture out. Inhabitants return from self-imposed exile. And the reaction in Israel? Dancing in the streets? Applause for the prime minister and the minister of defence, who at long last have come to their senses?

Not at all. The nation is appalled: where, it asks, is our victorious army? The people of Sderot are angry. The Qassams may have stopped, but that was supposed to happen after the army entered Gaza and wiped it out. The ceasefire is ‘fragile’, Ehud Olmert says: it can come to an end any minute. And Ehud Barak, who pushed for it, has an excuse: we have to go through the motions before starting the Big Operation in Gaza. For the sake of public opinion. Nobody says: thank God, the killing has stopped.

What is the reason for this almost unanimous feeling of disappointment? It’s that the national ego is hurt. How wonderful it would have been to see the Israeli army in Gaza, destroying Hamas and razing the city. But instead of the crushing victory we have something that smacks of defeat. And this in spite of the assertions of those now rooting for a reoccupation of Gaza that at any moment, with just a little more starvation and pressure, the people would have broken and rebelled against Hamas.

From the military point of view, a year of war in Gaza has ended in a draw. IDF 1, Hamas 1. But the IDF and Hamas are not two football teams of equal standing. Hamas is an armed political-religious movement, or what is termed in current Western parlance a ‘terrorist organisation’. When such an organisation manages a draw against one of the mightiest armies in the world, it can justifiably claim victory. The aim of Olmert’s war was to topple the Hamas government in Gaza and to destroy the organisation itself. But Hamas is stronger than ever, and its hold on the Strip is solid. Even in Israel that is not questioned.

For a year, the Israeli government has maintained a total blockade of Gaza – on land, at sea and in the air. It has enjoyed the unqualified support of Europe, which assisted in the starvation of a population of one and a half million. The US, too, was a full partner in this glorious enterprise. Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, dependent on the US, collaborated, if unwillingly. All this was not enough to beat into submission poor, crowded Gaza, a narrow strip of land 22 miles long and 6 miles wide. Not only did the rockets not stop, but their range increased. Their victims in Israel were few – a child could count them – but their impact on morale was immense.

Hamas has survived, but it did not achieve its aim either. It had no answer to the blockade. Only the pressure of international public opinion (as well as the Israeli peace movement) prevented total starvation, and there were shortages of everything. Unemployment was rampant, fuel disappeared, many inhabitants suffered from undernourishment. That is the nature of a draw: neither side is able to impose its will.

A ceasefire comes about only when both sides need it. The Israeli army needed the ceasefire no less than Hamas. That became clear from the comments of the ‘military correspondents’, almost all of whom are thinly disguised army spokesmen. No cabinet member would have agreed to a ceasefire if the army brass had objected. Usually, the army bosses press for one more action, one more operation, one more war. Have they suddenly turned into doves? Not really. But they knew that they had to choose between two ‘bad’ options: a ceasefire or the Big Operation – the reconquest of the entire Gaza Strip.

To say that the commanders did not like the first option would be an understatement. It meant admitting failure. But they liked the second option even less. No army likes to fight in a crowded, built-up area. Every alley is a potential trap, every man – and every woman – a potential suicide bomber. Even if the army succeeded in occupying the Strip with only ‘tolerable’ casualties, that would be just the beginning of their troubles. Every day soldiers would be killed. The mutual bloodletting would be endless. Just look at Iraq. Sooner or later the army would be compelled to leave, and the situation would revert to what it had been before, only worse. The army chiefs know this. Olmert and Barak know this. The lesson of the Second Lebanon War has not been forgotten. There is no mood for war.

The ceasefire has far-reaching political implications. It changes the regional map. As an agreement between the government of Israel and the Gaza authorities, it means a de facto recognition of the Hamas government. Any Gazan knows that the Israeli government was compelled to agree because it was unable to break Hamas by force. In the eyes of the Palestinians, the conclusion is easily drawn: Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah hasn’t got anything from the Israelis, Hamas has. Abbas tries peaceful means. He is the darling of the Americans and the Israelis. But since the great performance in Annapolis, not only has he not achieved any meaningful concessions and not freed a single prisoner, but more prisoners are being taken every night, the settlements are being enlarged and the Israeli government keeps announcing grandiose new building projects in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. And the Israeli government would not dream of agreeing to a ceasefire there.

Meanwhile Hamas has scored a significant military and political victory: goods will now flow into the Strip, cars will again bounce along the potholed roads; the Rafah crossing, which cuts Gaza off from the world, will be reopened. In the forthcoming prisoner exchange, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners will be released in return for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Will the ceasefire hold? Nobody expects it to: there is no written agreement, no orderly mechanism for settling disputes; no arbitrator to decide which side is responsible for a violation. If somebody in Israel wanted to break the ceasefire, nothing could be easier: a squad leader opens fire on a group of Palestinians near the border fence because he suspects they are about to plant an explosive device; a helicopter pilot on reconnaissance believes he is being shot at and launches a missile; the army intelligence chief claims that large quantities of arms are being smuggled into Gaza.

It could be done in other ways too. The army will kill half a dozen Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank. In response, the organisation will fire a salvo of Qassams at Sderot. The army will announce that this is a violation of the agreement and respond with an incursion into the Strip. Officially, it will be right, since the ceasefire does not cover the West Bank. An agreement holds only as long as both sides believe that it serves their interests. If one of them thinks otherwise, it will break it – and assert that the other side broke it first.

A ceasefire is not peace (salaam), or even an armistice or truce (hudnah). It is no more than an agreement to stop shooting for a time. It is the nature of things that each side will use the ceasefire to prepare for the next round of fighting – to breathe deeply, to rest, to train, to plan, to obtain more advanced weapons. But the ceasefire can become more than that. It can lead to Palestinian unity, to Israeli rethinking, to a practical advance towards a peaceful solution. At the very least, every day of the ceasefire saves lives. And in the meantime Hebrew dictionaries have added another Arabic word: tahdiyeh, which means ‘calm’.