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Gaza Cease-fire Emerged Amid Mix of Political, Internal Pressures

January 19, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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Israeli officials said their military has been ordered to pull out of the Gaza Strip by Tuesday, but only if Hamas militants keep their end of the weekend's cease-fire agreement. Analysts examine where both sides stand after three weeks of fighting.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the Gaza cease-fire. We start with a report from Gaza. Independent Television News correspondent Jonathan Miller was among the Western reporters entering the territory after the fighting stopped.

JONATHAN MILLER: Gaza’s government buildings have been pummeled, these the Ministries of Finance, Interior and Foreign Affairs, the infrastructure of a future independent Palestinian state. To Gazans, it’s evidence that Israel never wanted one.

We drove through Gaza City past the wreckage of its 22-day-long bombardment. This was an ambulance; 13 paramedics have been killed in this complex. We saw two graveyards, one bombed, the other driven over by tanks. I saw the tops of three minarets blown clean off.

We arrived at the U.N.-run Beit Lahia primary school, which took direct hits on Saturday morning, the very last day of the war. One thousand eight hundred and ninety-one refugees were sheltering here.

A worker here filmed on his mobile phone the aftermath of the first two white phosphorous shells to explode at 6:45 in the morning. As he was filming, another shell slammed into the school, this time an artillery round.

It caused mayhem. Ambulances already on the scene caught up in it all. Two dead, 14 injured. You can see white phosphorous burning all over the playground. Another two bombs then exploded. Four more were killed just outside.

Beit Lahia was the third U.N. school to be hit in an act condemned as outrageous by the U.N. secretary-general.

The school authorities have been gathering up some of the shrapnel and the shell casings of what hit the school in the incident of the 17th of January. This bit of wrecked metal here is, believe it or not, the remains of one of the four phosphorous bombs which exploded over the school, burning some of the children.

This big thing here is either a tank shell or an artillery piece. This is what hit the balcony just up there, killing two small children and blowing the legs off their 19-year-old cousin.

The Israeli army says that it hit schools because they had people firing. Is it possible that there were Hamas fighters shooting from inside this school?

“Absolutely not,” they said. “There were definitely no militants in here. People were sleeping. There was no gunfire.”

The Israelis insisted to us tonight that they only fire at schools when they’re fired at first.

Mahmoud is 13. He was badly wounded by shrapnel at the start of the war. Three weeks later, when the bombs hit the school, he suffered white phosphorous burns.

“I was washing my face upstairs,” he told me. “I’d just gone into the school room when the shell hit the balcony. When I escaped outside, the phosphorous bomb exploded. It went on my arm.”

Each side in this conflict has accused the other of war crimes.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

Both sides proclaim victory

David Makovsky
Project on the Middle East Peace Process
Israel wanted to continue a cease-fire that went on for six months, but saw Hamas using, firing as human shields -- from behind human shields and thought they had to launch this with self-defense, because Israeli cities were being hit.

MARGARET WARNER: In an interview on Israeli radio today, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, "We had to carry out this operation. I am at peace with the fact we did it."

Asked about the civilian death toll, Livni blamed Hamas for fighting from civilian population centers, saying, "We seek out the terrorists, and it can happen that civilians are sometimes hurt in the fight against terror."

"We should not take this lightly," she added. "The consequences in the context of civilian casualties are something we have to deal with among ourselves and in facing the world." For more on where both sides stand now after the three weeks of fighting, we're joined by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat chair for peace and development at the University of Maryland. He's also a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

And David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he's a former editor and diplomatic correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz newspapers in Israel.

Welcome back to the program, both of you.

Amid this devastation in Gaza and also some damage in Israel, we hear both sides proclaiming themselves -- each one of themselves the victors today. David, how can that be?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Project on the Middle East Peace Process: Well, clearly, when there's conflict, there's a lot of human tragedy. And you can't be human without being hit by these pictures on all sides.

Israel wanted to continue a cease-fire that went on for six months, but saw Hamas using, firing as human shields -- from behind human shields and thought they had to launch this with self-defense, because Israeli cities were being hit.

I would say it sees three achievements, as it sees it, one, the sense that it has degraded Hamas' capabilities. Fewer Hamas rockets were firing towards the end of the war. This image from 2006 that Hezbollah said Israel is a paper tiger has been lost...

MARGARET WARNER: In the Lebanon war.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: ... in the Lebanon war. The second element I think is that there's an international focus on the tunnels, which are being used to replenish the supply of rockets that hit Israeli cities, and there's been a new focus on that. And Secretary Rice led an effort and is going to bring in NATO, working with Egypt.

And the third element is, hopefully, the Palestinian Authority that was thrown out of Gaza in 2007, some of its fighters were thrown off of rooftops and windows and hospitals by Hamas, are now going to gain a foothold in and will work with the international community in the reconstruction of Gaza. And the Palestinian Authority is certainly viewed by Israel as a partner for co-existence.

Casualties of the war

Shibley Telhami
University of Maryland
Hamas, from day one, played largely to Arab and Muslim audiences, almost ignored the American and the Israeli audiences. And they have scored a big victory with those audiences.

MARGARET WARNER: And how can Hamas see itself as a victor here?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University of Maryland: Well, remember, it's all about audiences. I mean, obviously, as far as objective -- we can make an objective analysis, but it's about audiences.

The Israeli audience primarily is the Israeli public and the American public. Yes, they care about Arab public for deterrence. They care about the rest of the world, but primarily it's the Israeli public and the American public.

In the Israeli public, they clearly got a lot of support. The Israeli public thinks they did well. The coalition is doing exceptionally well. In the U.S., they got certainly more support than they got anywhere else around the world. And so in that sense, those are the two audiences for them.

Hamas, from day one, played largely to Arab and Muslim audiences, almost ignored the American and the Israeli audiences. And they have scored a big victory with those audiences.

Most of the Arab public and Muslim public is seeing those pictures that you've seen only on a much greater scale. I've been watching the media on a daily basis, 24/7. It's nothing but these pictures of horror.

Now, regardless of, you know, who you blame, the public in the region clearly blames the Israelis more. And even those who are angry with Hamas, they're angrier with Israel.

And so, in that sense, they've garnered a lot of sympathy. And I think that's been a casualty in a way of this war, the psychology, the erosion of psychology, of people's disbelief in the possibility of peace even more than in the past. It's going to be very hard to repair.

But Hamas also got some coalition. I mean, remember, the Doha conference in a way, quote, was support to -- to support the resistance. They've got the Syrians...

MARGARET WARNER: This conference of Arab states.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Arab states, including the Qatari government, the Syrian government, a number of Arab governments, some Muslim governments, including the president of Iran, where they are in Doha. And so they have a coalition that is supporting them.

And even today, in the conference in Kuwait, the Arab summit conference in Kuwait, everybody has -- even those who were blaming Hamas, in part, they were blaming Israel more. They were calling it a conspiracy. They wanted to see a coalition emerge.

In the end, Hamas is still in control of Gaza. In the end, they still retain the capacity. Today, their spokesman said they only lost 48 fighters. Now, I don't know the truth of this, but this is obviously part of the audience appeal. They only lost 48 fighters. They claim they still have the rocket capability and they still retain their military capacity.

Working toward coexistence

David Makovsky
Project on the Middle East Peace Process
The need is now to put forward economic projects that could reinforce those, in my view, like the Palestinian Authority, that actually want a future of coexistence with Israel. That would give a regional context for peacemaking.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in fact, was there a downside for Israel in this, in the aftermath, in terms of Hamas having not only held on to power but apparently today it seems to be reasserting control in Gaza? They have policemen on the streets and their bureaucrats out working.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, we'll have to see. Right now, you know, right after conflict, it's hard to know.

I saw a blog of Yusuf Ibrahim, who's an Arab-American who worked for many years at the New York Times, and he said, look, in the beginning, the Arabs are going to declare victory. But let's be honest. Look at the devastation, the destruction all around us. The only way is coexistence.

And I think here, you know, you've had the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, you've had the Saudi leadership, as well, who said we're not going to open this up to Hamas. And there's been real splits in the Arab world.

And I certainly don't take any pleasure in that. I mean, I think that what's needed now is to get the Arab world to work together, in my view, towards coexistence and reconstruction.

And I think with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, its Saudi king just pledged a billion dollars in Kuwait, I wish they would have done this to help the Palestinians before this incident, but leave that aside.

But the need is now to put forward economic projects that could reinforce those, in my view, like the Palestinian Authority, that actually want a future of coexistence with Israel. That would give a regional context for peacemaking.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain briefly, if you can, Shibley, why we see two separate cease-fires here. This wasn't negotiated with each side signing the same piece of paper. Each one declared it unilaterally. Why was that? And how stable is it?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, in part, the Israelis initially declared that an agreement with Hamas is not worth much, so they'd better have the upper hand and retain some capacity to move in when they have to. An agreement might have -- but Hamas was also asking for things the Israelis were not prepared to deliver.

So the timeline was getting close. They either have to stay in for a long time. The casualties would have increased if they went in to Gaza. Public opinion internationally was pressing them.

They have the American, you know, transition taking place. They don't want to be, you know, on the wrong side of President Obama's administration on day one. They have the Israeli elections. So there's a timeline, as well as the way the battle was going.

For Hamas, they probably preferred an agreement, actually, if their demands were met. But if they were not, they were very clever, because instead of just giving in to the Israelis, they could have gone fighting, which would have been playing into the hands of those who may have wanted to see the fight continue.

Instead, they basically said, "Well, we'll give the Israelis one week to pull out. And if they don't pull out, then we're going to renew our attack against them." Well, the Israelis pulled out very quickly because of the transition, but Hamas looks like it also succeeded in forcing its conditions.

At stake for Obama administration

Shibley Telhami
University of Maryland
A lot is at stake for the Obama administration. I think what they do and say on this issue is going to be important, not going to have a second chance to make a first impression. The international community is focused on it.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you two think this will hold for a good time?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, I think both sides have an interest right now in a cease-fire, but it is the Middle East. You've got to be careful about making grand projections.

I remember people said, oh, Hamas is going to grow. There's a sense of defiance, anger. We said that after the 2006 election, when the international community put conditions forward for Hamas to participate. Yet the polls show that support for Hamas has dropped over two-and-a-half years.

So I think we have to be careful about saying it's -- we know it's going to lead to war. We know it's going to lead to peace. I think the publics want a better future, and the Hamas leadership scattered in the wind during this war.

And I think those who come forward for coexistence, in my view, do stand a better chance, because Hamas has demonstrated it cannot offer a semblance of a better life.

MARGARET WARNER: So that raises the question, Shibley Telhami, what does this mean for an incoming President Obama, who said he wanted to make reigniting a Middle East peace process a real priority?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: First of all, I agree with David that the chance actually of violating the cease-fire are small in the short term, in good part because everybody wants to see what the administration is going to do. Everybody has an incentive, not only Hamas, but its backers, who want to see what is happening with this administration.

So a lot is at stake for the Obama administration. I think what they do and say on this issue is going to be important, not going to have a second chance to make a first impression. The international community is focused on it because this has been the hot issue of the day.

On the one hand, they want to signal change, because everybody is fed up with the Bush administration policy. They want to see something different. They think they went out to lunch during the crisis, and they want to see something.

And yet he doesn't want to alienate either the Arabs or the Israelis on this one and start on the wrong foot. It's a delicate balance. It's going to be very tough. They have to do it carefully. Everybody is going to be watching.

MARGARET WARNER: But does this conflict make it harder?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, I think it reminds people what are the stakes in this region if the radicals gain the upper hand. And, therefore, I'm hopeful that President-elect Obama leads an effort of engagement based on dignity for both sides.

If that means leading an international effort to reconstruct Gaza under the Palestinian Authority, not under Hamas, if it means an effort to stop the tunnels which are being used for rocket fires by Hamas against Israeli cities, or if it means reaching out to the Arab world and to tell them, "Gentlemen and ladies, you know, only Arabs can de-legitimize extremists. You want me to succeed? I can't succeed in Washington by myself. I need your help. And for you to give me that regional context for peacemaking, that means de-legitimizing extremists, and bolstering the moderates, and reach out to them." And I hope that President-elect Obama has a chance.

MARGARET WARNER: David Makovsky, Shibley Telhami, thank you both.