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Palestinians celebrate the Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that halted an eight-day conflict around the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis. (Mohammed Salem/REUTERS)
Palestinians celebrate the Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that halted an eight-day conflict around the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis. (Mohammed Salem/REUTERS)

MIDEAST CONFLICT

Gazans exult over ceasefire while Israelis fret Add to ...

Gazans celebrated in the tens of thousands Wednesday night while Israelis went to bed worried as a tentative truce between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist organization that controls Gaza, went into effect.

While the agreement promises to bring a halt to eight days of rocket fire and bombardment that left more than 140 dead, its vague terms give reason to doubt the halt will be long-lasting.

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Announced at a joint Egyptian-U.S. press conference in Cairo, the brief, seven-clause document calls for both parties to “halt all hostilities” against the other. But its third clause, which will be much talked about, is a model of muddiness. It appears to acknowledge Hamas’s demand that its border crossings with Israel be opened, but it doesn’t say anything relevant to achieving the objective.

“I read it 10 times and I still don't know what it means,” said Gershon Baskin, who, with the blessing of the Israeli government, has been negotiating ceasefire terms behind the scenes up until a week ago with the Hamas government’s deputy foreign minister, Ghazi Hammad.

“It tells us that the two sides disagree about more things than they agree on,” Mr. Baskin said.

In the absence of mutual trust, what’s needed to make a long-term ceasefire a reality is the forceful support of an international guarantor such as the United States.

As Israel knows from experience, vague agreements have a way of unravelling.

But that didn’t prevent Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, also in Cairo, from claiming a great victory in getting everything his organization wanted from the ceasefire: a halt to Israel’s attacks and “an end to the siege” of Gaza. But the latter is unsupported by this document and the former could be very short-lived.

“The only reason he has for celebrating,” Mr. Baskin said, “is that maybe his people in Gaza will get one or two nights sleep without being bombarded.”

The contentious third clause calls for “procedures of implementation” to “be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.” To Mr. Meshaal, that means only the details have to be determined in lifting the siege on Gaza.

As far as Israel is concerned, the words mean no more than agreeing to discuss, without any time limit, the idea of opening the border crossings.

“The devil is in the details,” Mr. Baskin said.

The next 24 hours may give some indication if negotiations will go anywhere. That’s when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be holding intensive talks with the Egyptians.

Egypt, and especially its new President, Mohammed Morsi, may be getting the credit for brokering this truce, but it is the United States alone that can give Israel the guarantees it needs, especially with respect to stopping the flow of weapons to the militant factions in the Gaza Strip.

“In a phone call I had this evening with President [Barack] Obama, I agreed with him that we should give the ceasefire a chance,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israelis in a televised statement Wednesday night. He added that Israel would not sit idly by while Hamas and other factions rearm.

“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.”

Reassuring words, but for Israelis, Wednesday evening’s agreement came as an awkward climbdown. Just a few hours before the announcement was made, a bomb exploded on a crowded Tel Aviv bus. No one was killed and only one person was seriously wounded, but the sight of a burned-out bus in the centre of an Israeli city evoked memories of a decade ago when suicide bombings, many carried out by Hamas disciples, were all too terrifying.

Hamas swore off suicide bombings in 2005 after Mr. Meshaal became leader. And rockets, fired on southern Israeli towns, took their place as a means of Hamas and other resistance factions making demands.

In Israel, public attitude toward a ceasefire with Hamas is a matter of geography: The closer a resident is to Gaza in the south of Israel, the more likely one is to oppose a ceasefire. They have been tried before without long-lasting success.

Palestinians in Gaza, when speaking in private, took little pride in homemade Qassam rockets being launched by some of their young men, flying wildly through the sky toward nearby Israeli communities such as Sderot and Ofakim. They said there was no reason to celebrate when, every once in a long while, a rocket actually hit and perhaps killed someone. In fact, they said, they were a little ashamed.

But this intense, eight-day conflict, highlighted by the launching of real rockets against real targets such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, cities in the densely populated centre of Israel, was finally a source of pride.

“Perhaps Israelis now will feel a little of the fear we feel here,” said Nabil Hamed as he stood beside the ruins of his home in the north Gaza community of Beit Hanoun. The flattened, three-storey structure, home to six Hamed families, was destroyed by an Israeli air strike Tuesday night.

“They [the Israelis] gave us a five-minute warning to get out,” he said. It’s “about as long as the sirens give them in Tel Aviv,” he observed.

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