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In Israel and Gaza, Fear that Truce Will Be Shortlived

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate ceasefire

While Palestinians in Gaza celebrated what they were calling a “victory” in the ceasefire, many Palestinians and Israelis who live near the border on both sides were still wary of the announcement, knowing that it could all be shattered at any moment by either side deciding to send up a random bomb—that could land on their head.

Indeed, just as both sides pored over the somewhat confusing language in the seven-clause agreement, there were sirens in the Eshkol Regional Council in Israel after it appeared that a rocket was fired towards the region from Gaza. The sirens are used to alert residents of the possibility of incoming fire. While witnesses claimed they saw the rocket explode in a Palestinian territory, security services said it was a false alarm.

But the sirens illustrated the tenuousness of a ceasefire in a region that is accustomed to violence prompted by the aggressions of angry young men on both sides who are filled with self-righteous outrage and indignation. After all, with Israel and Egypt severely restricting the movement of both people and goods into and out of Gaza on both sides, Gazans rightly feel imprisoned, without adequate food and healthcare and very little employment and activities for their young men. After the 2008 campaign in which Israel killed 1,400 Gazans and reduced much of the region to rubble, Palestinians weren’t even allowed to bring enough materials into Gaza to rebuild.

Much of the focus of the analysts and observers after the negotiations between Israel and Hamas was on the question of the border between the two regions. The agreement promises to stop the eight-day skirmish that resulted in more than 140 deaths—all but 5 of them on the Palestinian side—but it was disturbingly vague about the border.

While the agreement acknowledges Hamas’s demand that its border crossings with Israel be opened, it’s not clear how that’s supposed to happen.

“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,” Baskin told the Globe and Mail.

If there is distrust and suspicion on both sides, that puts more pressure on the outside forces—the United States and Egypt—to ensure that their ally adheres to the agreement.

All the uncertainty didn’t stop Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal 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 agreement doesn’t appear to support his claims.

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

The muddled third clause calls for “procedures of implementation” to “be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.” Meshaal believes that simply means the details have to be worked out to lift the siege on Gaza. But for Israel, the language means no more than agreeing to discuss, without any time limit, the idea of opening the border crossings.

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

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi will be holding intensive talks to work out these details over the next couple of days. One of the main issues will be how to stop the flow of weapons to Gaza through the hundreds of underground tunnels that originate in Egypt.

“In a phone call I had this evening with President 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.”

“We have to find a way of blocking the great smuggling of sophisticated arms from Iran, including long-range missiles across the desert into Gaza,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said yesterday on Fox News. Oren has estimated that as much as 90 percent of Hamas’s long-range missiles were destroyed by Israel’s operation.

There’s just one problem with shutting down the tunnels—because of the blockade and border restrictions, Gazans use the tunnels to smuggle in food, fuel, medicine and other civilian goods. So shutting them down will have a significant impact on the already horrible quality of life of the Gazans.

The smuggled weapons are transported from Iran to Egypt via the Red Sea, Sudan or Libya and from there through the Sinai and into the estimated 400 to 500 tunnels that dot Egypt’s border with Gaza.

The tunnels also provide jobs for about 70,000 of the 1.4 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and are managed by a Hamas “tunnels committee” that taxes the flow of goods, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The tunnel infrastructure is large and redundant, according to Daniel Byman, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, and “best closed from the Egyptian side.”

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