If it is possible to talk about a “good” war, then Israel’s Pillar of Defense against the Gaza Strip may well fit the bill. The war was a disaster — in human and material destruction. No one would argue otherwise. But it also crystallized a shared interest in stabilizing the conflict between Israel and Gaza — creating an opportunity that the three principal parties to the conflict — Israel, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Egypt — recognize and appear determined to exploit.
Gaza has long been the most dynamic arena where Israel and Palestinian interests collide. Battles have been fought with depressing regularity, and the periods of calm are inherently unstable, given the failure to reach a grand diplomatic bargain. But it is also the case that Israel, largely through Egyptian good offices, has since Ariel Sharon’s announcement in March 2004 of his intention to “disengage” from Gaza, enjoyed a more fruitful and successful dialogue with Hamas than with the PLO's Mahmoud Abbas and the West Bank under his nominal rule. Today, Israel’s Egyptian-mediated dialogue with Hamas represents the only working diplomatic channel between Israel and the Palestinians.
The two-paragraph cease-fire document agreed to by Israel and Hamas on Nov. 21 is the latest example of this workmanlike relationship. Hamas did not sign the document, in keeping with the fiction that Israel is not negotiating with Hamas. This is only a cosmetic convenience however, that reflects the shared, strategic interest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Hamas leadership of Khaled Meshal alike. So too the document itself, which offers something for all parties, except that of Palestine’s president Mahmoud Abbas of course, and his Palestinian Authority(PA), which has been reduced to a facilitator of understandings reached between Israel and the government in Gaza.
The “Understanding Regarding the Cease-fire in the Gaza Strip” is divided into two parts — one governs the cease-fire. The other section refers to the “implementation mechanism,” and includes “opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movement, and targeting residents in border areas and procedures of implementation.”
In contrast to Yitzhak Rabin’s famous dismissal of the timetables for implementing the Oslo II agreement — remember his “there are no sacred dates” — within the stipulated 24 hours after the agreement’s entry into force, each party was doing its part to see that the understandings were actually being implemented.
Israel and Hamas are each observing a cease-fire, which according to Israeli officials has resulted in the first period of “absolute quiet” in years. Within days of the end of hostilities Israel doubled to 6.9 kilometers the maritime border for Gaza’s fishermen, not adequate but a welcome improvement nonetheless. The Israeli-imposed 300 meter no-go zone inside Gaza’s 50 km border with Israel — which had placed off limits almost one third of Gaza’s much-needed agricultural land was also reduced. Farmers are already planting these newly “liberated” areas without serious incident and Hamas forces armed only with batons are now patrolling the border opposite unarmored Israeli military vehicles.
On Sunday, Israel inaugurated gravel exports from Israel to Gaza for use in commercial construction. These shipments were stopped by Israel after Hamas' rout of Fateh forces in June 2007 — part of the draconian restrictions on trade adopted by Israel to squeeze the victorious Hamas regime.
The shipments themselves are more important for what they suggest than what they provide. After all, Gaza can import all the gravel it needs and at a cheaper price through the tunnels linking Gaza with Egypt. Israel initially embargoed such trade on security grounds. It didn’t want Hamas to use the material to build bunkers and other military facilities. The resumption of such shipments suggests that such concerns are no longer so compelling. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, noted that more than 300 truckloads of goods have been moving from Israel to the Gaza Strip on a daily basis.
"They can have much more if they would like to," he said.
The resumption of this trade is also a symbolic nod in Egypt’s direction. As Israel sees it, the Egyptian government led by President Mohammed Morsi “passed the test” during Pillar of Defense. Despite its initial outrage and humiliation at Israel’s surprise decision to initiate a major offensive, Egypt’s new leaders followed a well-worn script adopted during the Mubarak era, mobilizing Cairo’s intelligence professionals to put an end to the violence. In return, the Netanyahu government has signaled that Israel may be prepared to do more to relieve Egypt of the strategic burden of Gaza’s well-being created by Israel’s disengagement and the associated siege. It would not be surprising to see discussion of an effective end to Israel’s maritime embargo of Gaza and perhaps even a restoration of Gaza’s airport.
More broadly however, is evidence that Israel has been forced to rethink both the political and economic utility of the siege as part of its improved relationship with Egypt, the Hamas government in Gaza, and the movement itself. The decision to permit a visit of a Hamas delegation headed by Khaled Meshal is an unambiguous example of this new look in Israel’s policy — one that has the added advantage of playing to Morsi’s preferences as well. This shared interest also includes reducing Iran's ties with Hamas, already strained by the latter's abandonment earlier this year of the Assad regime, and with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whose leader Ramadan Shallah was pointedly told that he would be targeted if he entered Gaza along with Meshal. Similarly, Cairo requires no prodding from Israel or Washington to rebuff Iranian efforts to join the parade of Arab leaders visiting Gaza.
It would be far too much to conclude that Netanyahu is now expressing an interest in Gaza’s and Hamas’ economic revival. Notwithstanding the cease-fire, the seeds of the next war are already being sown. Israel has not abandoned its strategic interest in forcing Gaza to look to Egypt as its economic umbilical cord. It would be more accurate to say that Israel, and for that matter Egypt as well, is more prepared than it has been in the past to accommodate Hamas’ interests in Gaza as part of a “win-win-win" formula. As long as everyone keeps their guns in their pockets, Hamas can do what is most important to its leadership — turning mortar and bricks into a government that can expand its power to act in a relatively sovereign manner and that can offer Palestinians and the international community a positive contrast, and a prospective alternative, to the PLO’s rule in the West Bank.