Violence between Israel and Hamas had threatened to further escalate. But international diplomatic efforts succeeded in reaching a cease-fire, using both sides' domestic policy situation to push for a breakthrough deal.
There couldn't have been a bigger success for Egypt. On Wednesday evening (21.11.2012), Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr stepped in front of the cameras and announced the breakthrough: Israel and the Palestinians had agreed on a cease-fire. Starting 8 pm, the firing would stop. A further escalation of the violence has been averted last minute.
During the afternoon it still looked as if the fighting would actually intensify. In Tel Aviv, a bomb exploded on a public bus, wounding around 20 people. Gaza's Hamas did not claim responsibility for the attack, but did say it was a reaction on the Israeli attacks on Gaza. With 170 dead and 1300 wounded – mostly on the Palestinian side – the conflict looked set to enter a new, even more brutal, stage. But then there was, against all odds, the diplomatic breakthrough in Cairo.
When the talks had failed just one day prior, it looked increasingly unlikely a cease-fire could be reached. For from the very beginning, the mediators were faced with the problem that both sides accused each other for being responsible for the outbreak of fighting. Israel had good reasons for its attack on Gaza, Meir Elran, analyst with the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) told Deutsche Welle only hours before the cease-fire was announced. The rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel had increased over recent months while after the 2008 war they initially had gone down. "But then, gradually, they resumed their offensive and in the last few months, they have really resumed it in full scale which made it impossible for us not to retaliate and not to try to stop them one way or another."
But this is a view that Palestinian democracy activist Mustafa Barghouti does not accept. In the past two to three years, there'd been a truce between Israel and the Gaza Strip, he told Deutsche Welle, adding that there had been no rockets fired from Gaza during that period. On November 12, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians had agreed on a cease-fire which on the Palestinian side had been signed by Ahmed Jabari, military chief of Hamas. "But two days later Israel killed the man who signed the deal. That's what triggered the new circle of violence."
War and domestic interests
The exact reason for the violence was indeed difficult to pin down, explained Günter Meyer, head of the Center for Research on the Arab World at Mainz University, who argues that it very much depends on how far you go back in history. But he believes that on both sides, political nous played a role.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the war to boost his election campaign, Meyer said, adding that Netanyahu had sought to provoke Hamas to fire rockets on Israel. "That way he could position himself as the defender of Israeli interest. He wanted to capitalize on that for his election campaign."
But Hamas too had profited from the escalation, Meyer continued. They had received intensified support from the Arab World, in particular Qatar and Egypt. "That way, Hamas immediately benefited from the war."
How long will the cease-fire last?
Meyer believes that the fear of an even higher death toll is what could have driven both sides to sign the peace deal. Netanyahu had realized that his country supported him but rejected the plan for a ground offensive. That's what had increased the chances for a cease-fire. "For in terms of his election campaign, it wasn't in Netanyahu's interest to see a higher Israeli death toll." The fact that the international community – including the US – had strongly cautioned Israel not to go ahead with the ground offensive was another factor, edging Netanyahu towards peace.
There were similar motives on the side of Hamas, Meyer explained. After they'd received a lot of support from large parts of the Arab World, they'd been hesitant to see violence escalate further – mostly for domestic reason. "Hamas has no interest in seeing public support turning against them if there are even more civilian casualties."
It was this situation that helped the mediation efforts by Egyptian and international diplomats. Added to this was – according to Meyer – the closeness and level of trust between Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood which made it easier for the Palestinian side to accept President Morsi as a peace broker. Morsi, in turn, was under certain pressure from Washington as the US is a major financial supporter of Egypt. On this basis he took on his role as a mediator. "He had the trust of Hamas while at the same time was bound by the peace treaty with Israel and his country's dependence on the US."
The negotiators in Cairo were faced with a more than difficult challenge – and few expected any quick success. Wednesday's breakthrough is therefore nothing short of a small diplomatic miracle.