Ceasefire: What It Means and Why Now

Israeli soldiers prepare to leave their position on the Gaza border at sunrise on Nov. 22, 2012, the beginning of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.(Photo: Reuters)

by: Barry RubinA ceasefire ending this round of the Hamas-Israel fighting went into effect at 9 p.m. local time, November 21, 2012. There were reports — still unconfirmed — of more rockets being fired from Gaza at Israel after the ceasefire was to be implemented. Hamas immediately claimed victory. So did Netanyahu, and here is his statement.

The brief agreement provides that both sides will stop all hostilities. For Israel, that included the targeted killings of terrorists and Hamas leaders. For the Palestinian side, the phrase “all Palestinian factions” was used. That means the Hamas regime is responsible for any attacks by Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda affiliates, and other small Salafist groups. According to the text, at least, Hamas cannot hide behind allowing or encouraging such groups to attack and then disclaiming responsibility.

Another provision is that Israel will reopen the crossings and let people (a small number of Gazans seeking medical attention in Israel) and supplies return to normal levels.

Egypt — not the United States, which isn’t mentioned in the agreement — is the sponsor of the ceasefire. According to some reports which seem accurate, the ceasefire was agreed to through Egypt but delayed until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived. By allowing Clinton to claim credit for the agreement, Israel may get something in return, including most obviously a greater U.S. commitment to make the agreement work.

There is an interesting hint on this kind of secret agreement contained in Netanyahu’s statement:

Israel obviously cannot sit idly while our enemy reinforces itself with weapons of terror. Therefore we decided, President Obama and myself, that the United States and Israel would work together to fight the smuggling of weapons to the terror organizations – weapons, virtually all of which come from Iran.

This suggests there will be some new anti-smuggling effort involving U.S. intelligence, cooperation with other countries, and pressure on Egypt to make it harder to get weapons — especially missiles — into the Gaza Strip. It is clear that long-range missiles are the hardest thing to bring in and the easiest weaponry for Egypt to stop at the border.

By doing so, Egypt also clinches its gaining more U.S. aid, though that probably would have happened anyway.

On Hamas’s side, the decision to reach a ceasefire was motivated by the damage the organization was suffering and fear of a massive Israeli ground attack. Perhaps most important, however, was that Hamas found it was not receiving strong support from Egypt and other states, especially because Cairo is now ruled by a Muslim Brotherhood government.

Hamas is an independent branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Apparently, Hamas did not consult with Egypt before escalating attacks against Israel, the factor that set off large-scale Israeli retaliation. In turn, Egypt, along with Qatar, the Hamas regime’s main Arab funder, pressured the regime to stop the fighting.

The timing for a crisis could not be worse for the new Egyptian regime. It has not yet tamed its army, finished writing its constitution, or established the legitimacy of the parliament it dominates.

At the precise time the war started, the Egyptian government was completing negotiations that can be expected to bring it almost $10 billion in aid from the European Union, International Monetary Fund, and United States. Whatever Egypt does in the future, it does not want trouble from Israel at present.

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