Tentative ceasefire agreed between Hamas and Israel

A ground war may have been averted thanks to US pressure and Egyptian diplomacy. But how long the Gaza Strip ceasefire between Hamas and Israel will last is the question.

By , Correspondent , Staff writer

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    Palestinians celebrate what they say is a victory over Israel after an eight-day conflict in Gaza City November 21. Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement ruling the Gaza Strip agreed on Wednesday to an Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire to halt an eight-day conflict that killed 162 Palestinians and five Israelis.
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Israel and Hamas agreed to end the conflict in Gaza in an agreement mediated by Egypt.

Both sides claimed victory after the ceasefire was announced in a press conference involving Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo.

According to the terms of the deal, Israel will end all hostilities in Gaza -- including assassinations of Hamas leadership -- and Palestinian militants will end all rocket and ground attacks against Israel. It also stipulates that the crossings into Gaza will be opened to both goods and people, which, if fully implemented, would be a significant change for the territory that has been under an Israeli economic blockade since 2007. Egypt will act as a guarantor of  the agreement.

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"This is a critical moment for the region," Secretary Clinton said as the agreement was announced. "Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace."

Many in the region are holding their breath to see if the truce holds. Hamas has agreed to stop firing rockets, but it must also keep smaller, militant organizations from breaking the truce by firing rockets of their own. Many in the Arab world are skeptical that Israel will hold up its end of the deal. In the hour after the deadline passed, militants launched roughly a dozen rockets into Israel.

But If the ceasefire lasts, it could represent an achievement for Egypt's new president Mohamed Morsi, who has sought more diplomatic prominence for Egypt. It would also enhance the standing of Hamas and could revitalize Gaza if the border crossings, particularly the one with Isreal, are opened to normal trade.

"This is not a status quo arrangement in my mind at all," says Michael Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. "Obviously this goes a long way toward normalizing Hamas's political role, and that's a big deal. Depending on how the next steps are implemented, it also goes a long way toward ending the closure policy and the blockade of Gaza."

Victory? Or defeat?

The agreement comes after eight days of fighting that claimed the lives of more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis. The recent escalation began when Israel assassinated Ahmed Al Jabari, leader of Hamas' armed wing, and began pounding Gaza with airstrikes, prompting a barrage of rocket fire into Israel from Hamas and other militant factions. A bus bombing in Tel Aviv today had caused worry that a ceasefire would not be reached and Israel would launch a ground invasion.

In a press conference in Cairo, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal declared victory for the Palestinians and "great defeat" for Israel. "Our demands were met," he said of the agreement. He also had high praise for Egypt's role in securing the agreement. Tomorrow evening, he asserted, 24 hours from the time of the ceasefire, Israel's blockade on Gaza would be "lifted," and Gazans would be able to live like "any other" people.

But in Israel, some were not impressed with the deal. Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, said Israel's promise to open the Gaza crossings is meaningless because the crossings were "already open" before the hostilities began. Israel sends basic goods into Gaza through those crossings, and allows limited numbers of people to cross into Israel for medical treatment.

But normal trade through the crossings is nonexistent. Israel prohibits almost all exports of goods grown or manufactured in Gaza, and restricts building supplies and other goods through the crossings. 

The crossing with Egypt, at Rafah, is open only to people who have prior permission from Hamas and the Egyptian government, and is not open to goods. Mr. Baskin says the status of the Rafah crossing, as well as the smuggling tunnels underneath that border, will be a key issue. Morsi's government has in recent months begun destroying the tunnels and clamping down on the tunnel trade, which have been used to bring basic supplies into Gaza since the blockade began. 

There are many details still to be worked out, including who would operate the Palestinian side of the crossings if they were to operate normally. That job was previously undertaken by the Palestinian Authority, which abandoned those posts when Hamas forcefully took control of Gaza in 2007. 

Egypt has put its credibility on the line by  guaranteeing the compliance of Hamas, and having Egypt as a guarantor of Hamas behavior will be welcomed by Israel, says Hanna. "Egypt has a stake in maintaining the calm. And that means they'll have a stake in terms of trying to ensure that Hamas complies, and that Hamas is able to deal with other militant groups that are less willing to comply."

It will be a test for Morsi, who came to power following the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, a strong US ally who maintained good ties with Israel as well. Morsi comes from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ideological ties to Hamas, yet it is still unclear how much leverage he has over the organization. 

For Hamas, Israel's agreement to end assassinations -- or "targeted killings" as it sometimes refers to them -- is a "big deal," says Hanna. Israel has historically used assassinations to try to weaken militant Palestinian groups by killing their leadership. 

The deal came after President Obama dispatched Clinton to Israel and Cairo as officials were on the verge of a deal that unraveled last night. In the joint press conference with Egypt's foreign minister, Clinton praised Morsi for his "leadership" in ending the crisis and said "Now we have to focus on reaching a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security, dignity, and legitimate aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis alike."

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said Israel had achieved its aims. "We killed senior commanders and destroyed thousands of rockets and command and control centers." He also said, "I know there are citizens expecting a more intensive military operation, and it is very likely that one will be required, but right now, the right thing for the State of Israel is to take advantage of the opportunity for a protracted cease-fire."

According to a poll by Israel's Channel 2 news, 70 percent of Israelis were opposed to the ceasefire.

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