Finally a real cease-fire between Hamas and Israel?

An agreement to stop the fighting was apparently reached in Cairo. But there are differences between the claims that Hamas and Israel are making for the contents of the agreement.

Adel Hana/AP
Palestinians celebrate the cease-fire between Palestinians and Israelis at the main road in Gaza, in the northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Israel and Hamas agreed Tuesday to an open-ended cease-fire, halting a seven-week war that killed more than 2,200 people, the vast majority Palestinians, left tens of thousands in Gaza homeless and devastated entire neighborhoods in the blockaded territory.

Palestinians are euphoric and Israelis relieved after a grueling six weeks that left more than 2,100 dead in Gaza and resulted in the loss of six times more Israeli soldiers than during the country's last ground operation in Gaza.

But amid the triumphant fireworks in Gaza and the cross-fire of assertions from Hamas and Israel about who came out ahead, something has been missing: The actual terms of the cease-fire that that was apparently reached in Cairo today. Israeli officials have indicated that they haven't given up much. Hamas leaders have crowed they got almost everything they wanted.

It's a familiar post-war public relations battle in which both sides declare victory but don't address whether either or both sides will be better off.

"Our armed resistance achieved what the Arab armies had failed to achieve," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, adding that "this besieged weak people defeated the strongest .... army in the Middle East and destroyed the enemy's power of deterrence and the legend of the army that can never be defeated."

Hamas has a need to claim "victory," since its political popularity is built on its insistence that military confrontation, rather than the nonviolence and negotiation favored by the rival Palestinian Fatah movement, is the only way to pry concessions from Israel. But there's a grain of truth here as well. Hamas gave Israel a far stronger fight than ever before in this conflict, the third in less than six years. 

But what did Hamas get in exchange? The group appears to have settled for a refurbished version of a deal that ended the last round of fighting in 2012, along with a vague promise of discussions on opening a seaport and an airport if it doesn't take hostile actions toward Israel over the next month.

According to Mousa Abu Marzouq, the No. 2 in Hamas's politburo, this deal is sweeter than early claims from the Israeli side indicate. The Palestinian news outlet Ma'an reported that Mr. Marzouq said that Israel will allow fishing from Gaza to extend 12 miles off the coast from the current three miles by the end of the year. He also said that Israel will open three additional border crossings with Gaza, and that the US, Europe, and Israel will lift their opposition to transferring money into Gaza to pay former employees of the Hamas-run government, enabling the new unity government to distribute salaries to all – a key sticking point in June.

Israel, meanwhile, gets an end to the rocket fire that has kept as many as 5 million Israelis running in and out of bomb shelters this summer, and killed five civilians. But it also appears to have bent a little: Neither the war nor this tenuous peace comes close to meeting Israel’s previous demand for demilitarizing the Gaza Strip.

Similar deal to 2012

The Egyptian foreign ministry said tonight that the deal would loosen Israeli restrictions on goods coming into Gaza, particularly humanitarian supplies needed to rebuild more than 17,000 destroyed homes and to repair infrastructure. Egypt may also ease restrictions on the passage of Palestinians through the Rafah border crossing, controlled by Egypt, whose regime has cracked down on Hamas as an offshoot of the country's banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel gave similar assurances in 2012, but the steps toward loosening its control of Gaza’s land and sea borders were dialed back one by one. The six-mile fishing zone was reduced to three miles, and moves toward freer imports of building supplies, including cement, were reversed after Israel discovered last fall that some of its cement had gone to build a mile-long tunnel under its border at Ein HaShlosha.

Hamas largely kept its promise to maintain a cease-fire, with the help of a new police force that kept a lid on Palestinian rocket teams, including those from more restive factions. That made 2013 the quietest year for Gaza rocket fire in a decade.

But the broader talks on reducing Israel’s control of Gaza’s land, sea, and air borders never transpired and a chain reaction of events at the start of the summer led Hamas to unleash its rocket arsenal on Israel – this time with more accurate and long-range weapons.

Hamas, founded in 1987 as a Palestinian resistance organization, seeks to end Israel's occupation. Its charter calls for the destruction of Israel to accomplish that goal, but some of its leaders have said in recent years that they would settle for a Palestinian state including the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with a capital in East Jerusalem. Hamas has also offered Israel a 10-year truce, or hudna, if it withdraws from the territory it occupied in 1967. 

Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, imposed severe restrictions on the passage of goods and people between Gaza and Israel since the movement won elections in 2006 and violently ousted its secular Fatah rivals the following year. Hamas's main demand through this latest conflict is to end the Israeli siege on Gaza.

A real deal?

Egypt added tonight that indirect talks on Gaza’s future would begin within a month. But Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted that that was conditional on a “total end to terror attacks from Gaza.”

In the same missive, Mr. Regev asserted that today’s deal was essentially the same one Israel agreed to on July 15, just one week into the conflict. Hamas has suffered major damage since then, when the Palestinian death toll was less than a tenth of what it is today.

Among those killed were two top commanders from Hamas’s armed wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, as well as a devastating strike on a house where the head of Al Qassam, Mohammed Deif, was alleged to be staying. His status is unclear. Hamas has recovered from at least three such assassinations in the past decade, but it still marks a short-term blow.

Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, has seen his public approval rating drop from a high of more than 80 percent at the start of the ground operation to 38 percent, signaling that the near-total Israeli Jewish consensus about the war may have started to fray.

In a society where almost nothing is worse than to be deemed a frier – a sucker – the pressure is on to show that Israel’s government did not give in to Hamas. Netanyahu faces persistent criticism from other government ministers who urged a tougher line on Hamas, which they say will use the calm to regroup and attack again, continuing an ever-accelerating cycle of violence.

Hamas is already rallying its people not only with fireworks but fiery declarations that they are marching down the path of liberating the Al Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem.

But once the last fireworks sizzle out of the sky, it will take a lot of work to put Gaza back together again. And the extent to which that is successful will affect not only Hamas’s future, but Israel’s, too.

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