East Side Story
by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff
Who won this round in Gaza, Israel or Hamas? Only time will tell
The true outcome of Operation Pillar of Defense will be clear in time: if there is quiet, the Netanyahu government can claim success, but if there isn't, the next military operation against Hamas will be with much greater force.
The agreement: At 9 P.M. Wednesday, immediately after the cease-fire took effect, the spin doctors went into high gear. Ministers, generals and their spokespeople confidently explained why the agreement, and in particular the operation that preceded it, were great achievements for Israel. Senior Hamas officials must have done exactly the same thing on the other side.
At the press conference held by senior Israeli officials, there were acceptance speeches that would not have been out of place at the Oscars. What will they do the next time, when we may actually bring Hamas to its knees - as some enthusiastic Knesset members have wished in the past few days?
The true picture will become clear with the passage of time, and it depends mostly on the period of quiet achieved in the south.
If the cessation of rocket fire is of extended duration, and there are no attacks on IDF forces along the border fence, the Netanyahu government will be able to claim success. If the understandings collapse quickly, it will bring on another military operation against Hamas, this time with much greater force.
It is hard to achieve decisive, immediate victories in the asymmetric battle with terror and guerrilla organizations. At the moment, the results look more like a tie, until proved otherwise. There is a fair share of logic in Defense Minister Ehud Barak's claims that the unsigned document is not particularly important. If the Palestinians attack from the "perimeter security area" west of the border fence, Israel in any case will break the agreement and enter Gaza. The announcement of the opening of the crossings may have symbolic importance, but practically it involves actions between Egypt and Hamas concerning the Rafah crossing. What does it matter, says Barak, if more furniture passes between Gaza to the West Bank, or fewer strawberries? It seems Israel does not give a great deal of importance to these sections - because it does not view the deal as an official binding agreement that will last for too long. "Non-paper is a document that is not worth the paper it's not written on," said a Hollywood studio owner once upon a time.
The regional reality, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the press conference, is particularly complex now. Netanyahu looked trapped Wednesday between the unrealistic expectations of the public for a total victory, and the problematic conditions in the field. Netanyahu, just like his predecessors Sharon and Olmert, has discovered the limits of employing force against Hamas. Gaza is the land of limited opportunities.
Hamas: Covering their pain with smiles
The joint press conference in Cairo with American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr was accompanied by a final, heavy volley of rockets from Gaza at Israel, almost until the last second. In Gaza, they began preparing the victory rallies Wednesday. But the celebrations will not hide the serious blow Hamas suffered in the military arena by the killing of Ahmed Jabari, the destruction of its long-range Fajar missiles and the attacks on its commanders and camps.
But if we take a serious look at the agreement passed out to the press in Cairo, as opposed to Barak's position, then it contains a number of items that are not very encouraging for Israel. "A few sections are suspicious. They look too good for Hamas to be true," said a Palestinian commentator Wednesday to Haaretz. He was referring in particular to the section on easing the situation at the crossings. Hamas will, of course, claim that this is a lifting of the blockade on Gaza, but the agreement does not say at which crossing this will happen. Hamas is proud of the Israeli commitment to avoid harming Palestinian residents near the border and to stop all attacks on Gaza. And the status the agreement bestows on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is especially important, as it gives Egypt the role of guaranteeing the agreement and acting as the mediator between the sides.
The central question is whether Hamas can enforce the cease-fire on the various factions in Gaza. Here, opinions differ. Some Palestinian commentators say Hamas has lost control over the situation in Gaza and is incapable of controlling hundreds of armed men, members of extremist Salafist groups.
Another problem concerns Jabari's loyalists in the Hamas military wing, who will find it difficult to accept the command of his successor, Marwan Issa. But there are those Palestinian commentators who disagree and say Hamas will have the full backing of the public in Gaza to break the bones of anyone who violates the cease-fire and endangers Gaza in another war. It is also possible that Hamas will keep a low profile and continue to carry out attacks, but via its agents in Sinai.
In the two days preceding the agreement, politicians were swept away in the wake of the media, and over-discussed how the victory would look. But in the south, the real war continued to rage, not the war of media images. It is impossible not to appreciate the importance of symbols and pictures in an age where the media brings the battlefield, live, into everyone's living room.
The IDF's hysterical quest for a victory at the end of the Second Lebanon War brought nothing, except for unnecessary battles over the planting of flags in places no one ever heard of. In the end, that war created deterrence, despite the failures of the Olmert government and the IDF, because Israel used a massive amount of force. Hezbollah suffered heavy losses and damage, and since then it has been wary of another round of fighting.
For Hamas, the consideration of whether to violate the cease-fire will be related to the price of the defeat. If it really suffered a blow, as IDF Military Intelligence claims, then Hamas will have good reason to prevent a rematch. It will not be because of pictures of the blown-up bus in Tel Aviv, or the ruined apartments in Rishon Letzion. It will happen, if at all, because of the amount of munitions, accurate and devastating, that fell on the organization in Gaza. Deterrence is a very slippery concept, and can only be measured over time - even if the politicians and press are dying to get the answer in this morning's mail.