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Middle east

Tenuous Gaza ceasefire holds as tensions simmer

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2012-11-22

An Egypt-brokered ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers took effect on Wednesday night, bringing an end to eight days of cross-border attacks amid fears that the calm might be short-lived.

A ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas leadership took hold on Thursday after eight days of conflict, although deep mistrust on both sides cast doubt on how long the Egyptian-sponsored deal can last.

The deal prevented, at least for the moment, an Israeli ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave following bombing and rocket fire that killed five Israelis and 162 Gazans, including 37 children.

But trust was in short supply. The exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, said his Islamist movement would respect the truce if Israel did, but would respond to any violations. “If Israel complies, we are compliant. If it does not comply, our hands are on the trigger,” he told a news conference in Cairo.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had agreed to “exhaust this opportunity for an extended truce”, but told his people a tougher approach might be required in the future.

Both sides quickly began offering differing interpretations of the ceasefire, brokered by Egypt’s new Islamist government and backed by the United States, highlighting the many actual or potential areas of discord.

Just 12 hours into the truce, a dozen rockets from the Gaza Strip had landed in Israel, while Israeli forces seized 55 suspected Palestinian militants in the West Bank, citing a need to quell the occupied territory following the conflict.

Gazans claim victory

If the truce holds, it will give the 1.7 million Gazans respite from days of ferocious air strikes and halt rocket salvos from militants that have unnerved a million people in southern Israel and reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time.

“Allahu akbar, (God is greatest), dear people of Gaza you won,” blared mosque loudspeakers in Gaza as the truce took effect. “You have broken the arrogance of the Jews.”

Reporting from Gaza City, FRANCE 24’s Gallagher Fenwick said there was a palpable sense of victory in the air. “Gazans believe Hamas and the other Palestinian factions scored some major points in this latest confrontation with Israel,” he said. “But they’re also celebrating because they’ve been holed up for the past eight days and they’re simply happy to be able to come out,” he said.

Fenwick described the overnight rocket-fire from Gaza as “a minor phenomenon and not one that is likely to endanger the ceasefire. This rocket fire is probably from a competing Gazan faction that disagrees with the terms of the contract,” he said.

"SCENES OF JOY IN THE GAZAN STREETS"

But while the Israelis chose not to respond to the rocket fire, further violence was not ruled out. “I know there are citizens expecting a more severe military action, and perhaps we shall need to do so,” Netanyahu said.

“No one is under the illusion that this is going to be an everlasting ceasefire,” said Michael Herzog, an aide to Defence Minister Ehud Barak. “But there is a chance that it could hold for a significant period of time, if all goes well,” he told Reuters.

Middle East analysts such as Steven Ekovich of the American University of Paris warned that the truce – even if it holds – will be precarious at best. “This is a long story and history has led us to be skeptical of ceasefire agreements – they’re sticking-plaster agreements,” said Ekovich in an interview with FRANCE 24.

In Amman, UN chief Ban Ki-moon acknowledged “challenges to implementing the agreement” but urged “maximum restraint” from both sides.

Regional shift

The conflict erupted in a Middle East already shaken by last year’s Arab revolts that toppled several veteran US-backed leaders, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and by a civil war in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is fighting for survival.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who helped to broker the deal alongside Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, described “a critical moment” for the region. “Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone for regional stability and peace,” she said. “`I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence.”

Cairo has walked a fine line between its sympathies for Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood to which President Morsi belongs, and its need to preserve its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and its ties with Washington, its main aid donor.

In Tel Aviv, FRANCE 24 correspondent Chris Moore said that there was a clear sense of the changing dynamic in the region. “The Israelis know that Egypt is still prepared to act as guarantor of Israeli security,” he said. “But this has shown that Egypt, along with Turkey and Qatar, is now much closer to the Palestinian cause.”

On Wednesday French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius accused Iran, which is a strong supporter of Hamas, of negative intentions in Gaza, as well as in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. "[Hamas has] long-range weapons up to 75 kilometres and these are Iranian weapons. Iran bears a heavy responsibility,” he said.

Iran reacted angrily to the assertions and denied supplying Gazan militants with the infamous Fajr 5 rocket, new to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The comments made by Mr. Fabius are due to lack of attention to the prevailing realities in the Middle East,” foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on Wednesday.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2012-11-22

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