Gaza fighting pauses, but is the war over?

Hamas and Israel have not agreed to terms of a mutual cease-fire agreement, worrying many that the war will soon start up again.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Withdrawal: Israel says that its troops will be out of the Gaza Strip by Tuesday.
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    Salvage: A Palestinian carried some belongings from the rubble of his Gaza City home Monday. Several thousand homes were destroyed in the three-week conflict.
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Hamas militants and Israeli soldiers held their fire Monday after agreeing to halt fighting after three weeks of war. Israeli troops began pulling out as Gazans assessed damages, cared for the wounded, and buried some of the estimated 1,300 dead.

But there is no mutual cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, meaning this could merely be a pause in the war. Both sides have warned that they could resume fighting at any time, keeping the pressure on the international mediators, namely Egyptians, to come up with a deal Hamas and Israel will accept.

"The political results of this war are much more important than the military results, and these results will be tested according to the will and ability of the Egyptians to fight against the smuggling of arms into Gaza," says Professor Moshe Lissak, an expert on the Israeli military at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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In a press conference, the military arm of Hamas vowed that it would rearm, despite a series of pledges by Egypt, European powers, and the US to stop the Islamist organization, which rejects any recognition of Israel, from restocking its weapons supply.

"Manufacturing holy weapons is our mission and we know how to acquire weapons," Abu Obaida, a spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, told reporters.

He also said that only 48 Hamas fighters had been killed in the operation, a small fraction of the 500 that the Israeli military says it killed in the fighting. Reuters reported that according to figures from Hamas, 112 Hamas fighters and 180 Hamas policemen were killed. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed.

On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned that if Hamas renews cross-border rocket fire, Israel will launch another offensive. "If Hamas fires a [rocket] at Israel, it will get slapped down again."

In Gaza Monday, Palestinians went to the site of their homes and picked at the rubble in disbelief, looking to salvage belongings. After the cease-fire went into effect, at least 100 Palestinians were found beneath the ruins, according to a print reporter allowed into Gaza. Israel has not allowed foreign journalists into Gaza during the offensive, and as of Sunday evening, has begun letting in a pool of six media representatives at a time.

In the center of Gaza City, most ministry buildings are in tatters. Even the parliament building is destroyed. Some Palestinians who became internally displaced during the crisis are finding that they have no homes to go back to. Gazans are still finding food, fuel, and cooking gas in short supply, and many were still without electricity. A Hamas official in Gaza said 5,000 homes, 16 government buildings, and 20 mosques were destroyed, and another 20,000 houses damaged, Reuters reported. Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion in aid to help Gaza rebuild. Palestinians put the total cost of damage at $1.9 billion.

Casualties in Gaza skyrocketed in the last week of the war, pushing a sense of urgency upon regional and international players trying to lead Israel and Hamas toward a cease-fire. At the forefront of these was Egypt, which borders both Israel and Gaza, and which has often acted as an intermediary.

But with no breakthrough imminent, Israel decided to go it alone and declare a one-sided cease-fire, signaling a reliance on the unilateralism that the ruling Kadima Party first became famous for when the controversial Ariel Sharon, then prime minister, decided to pull troops and settlers out of Gaza in August 2005 with no Palestinian partner or coordination.

Following the Israeli cease-fire decision on Saturday, Hamas announced its own self-declared truce the next day, saying that it would give Israeli forces a week to get out of Gaza, and they did not, Hamas would resume rocketing Israeli towns.

Israel's decision now to end its campaign in Gaza, which began on Dec. 27 in a bid to stop rocket attacks on southern Israel, evinced some disappointment from Cairo because it was seen as circumventing Egypt's initiative.

A summit meeting in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on Sunday, attended by several European leaders, was in part an effort to reaffirm the importance of Egypt's role, analysts say.

"Egypt withstood much criticism from Syria, from Iran, from Palestinians around the world, who say that Egypt should cut off its relations with Israel. But in the end, the summit proved that Egypt is the only partner who was able to stop the Israeli operation and get them to declare a cease-fire in Gaza," says Emad Gad, head of the Israel unit at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"Egypt is working now to lift the embargo on Gaza, to open the passages, and to work against all kinds of smuggling," says Mr. Gad.

"The war in Gaza proves to Syria and Iran that they have no alternatives like the ones we have. They support the Palestinians by speeches, but Egypt is the one that changes the situation on the ground," Gad adds. "I think the ultimate lesson to everyone is that we have moderate Arab countries – like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – and if you want to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, you need to deal with these countries."

Still unclear is how smuggling into Gaza from Egypt will be curtailed. Egypt rejects the possibility of placing international forces on the Egyptian side of the border, viewing this as a violation of its sovereignty. Rather, officials in Cairo have indicated that they would favor deployment of international troops on the Palestinian side of Rafah, the border town, but so far Hamas has treated that as a nonstarter. Another proposal suggested that forces loyal to the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority would control the border, but this was rejected by Hamas.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, speaking at a summit of Arab leaders in Kuwait, virtually blamed Hamas for inviting Israel's military offensive in Gaza when it refused to extend the six-month cease-fire, which expired on Dec. 19. Palestinian militants in Gaza had already started launching rockets in the days before, citing that Israel was keeping the borders closed.

"You all know about efforts Egypt undertook to extend the cease-fire and our warnings that a refusal by factions to extend it was an open invitation to Israeli aggression," Mr. Mubarak said. He promised to continue working to try to achieve a national unity government in order to rebuild and rehabilitate Gaza.

Both sides in the war have begun to speak – and spin – in the language of achievements. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said that Palestinians had triumphed greatly. He commended the families of "the martyrs who sacrificed their blood for this victory."

Israeli officials, meanwhile, sounded equally certain that the war had achieved its objectives, because it would make Hamas think twice before shooting again.

Mr. Lissak, the Hebrew University professor, said that while he and some others on the left in Israel think that the military used too much firepower in Gaza, there is widespread support in Israel for the war. "There was more firepower used here than in any other war in Israel that I know of. From the world, this will engender harsh criticism, and here, it will be moderate."

Mainly, he says, Israelis will walk away with the understanding that their army shouldn't have tolerated repeated missile attacks on the south of Israel.

Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza City, Gaza, contributed to this report.

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