By Adam Entous - Analysis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel declared an end to its first war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, but few think it will be the last.
Determined to deny the Islamist group any gains from the 22-day conflict, Israel opted for a unilateral ceasefire that leaves largely unsettled the issues at the heart of the conflict -- Israel’s blockade and Hamas’s future role.
Though weakened militarily, Hamas remains the de facto force within the coastal enclave.
For now, the big question is whether Hamas militants will fire on Israeli ground troops during the withdrawal, as the group’s leaders have threatened to do.
If that happens, Israel made clear the fighting will resume.
But long-term, the real question is whether Israel will abandon its stranglehold on Gaza. So long as Hamas remains in power, most diplomats don’t think so.
That means living conditions for the enclave’s 1.5 million residents, half of whom are children, are unlikely to improve much, even if international donors promise to rebuild the impoverished enclave.
Israel’s destruction of smuggling tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt means Palestinian dependence on the limited supplies the Jewish state lets in will only increase.
U.S. and Israeli officials are hoping the devastation wrought by the offensive will turn ordinary Palestinians in the Gaza Strip against Hamas, whose rocket fire helped trigger the onslaught.
Israel is also betting that Gaza militants have been taught a painful lesson -- the campaign killed 1,200 Palestinians, including many Hamas men -- and will think twice before starting a new fight. Statements by the group suggest otherwise.
“So long as there is no agreement on the crossings, I frankly cannot see the end to the hostilities,” said Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was Israel’s left-leaning Labor foreign minister when previous peace talks collapsed in 2001.
He suggested Israel’s assessment that Hamas had been “badly beaten” was wishful thinking.
Nicolas Pelham, of the International Crisis Group, said the factors that led to the conflict have yet to be addressed.
To break the cycle of violence, he said, Israel and the international community must “find a way of satisfying Gaza’s needs and ensuring that Gaza has a gateway to the outside world.”
That gateway is supposed to be the Rafah crossing, which lies on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.
So far, Hamas has rejected Israeli and Egyptian conditions that Rafah only be allowed to reopen under the terms of a 2005 U.S.-brokered accord which placed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s security forces at the crossing. Those forces were among those routed from the Gaza Strip in Hamas’s June 2007 takeover.
Mohammed Nazzal, a Hamas official in Damascus, said going back to that accord, which gave Israel the power to halt operations at the Egyptian border, “means going back to a blockade.”
Western diplomats said Abbas, who is committed to making peace with Israel and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, emerged weakened.
His aide, Nabil Abu Rdainah, urged the international community to “keep pressure on Israel” to withdraw completely and open the crossings.
U.S. plans call for using the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip to reassert the presence of Abbas’s Western-backed Palestinian Authority in Hamas’s stronghold, but many diplomats are skeptical it will work.
As for Israel’s border crossings with Gaza, Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised to “continue to do our best to facilitate humanitarian solutions” but was otherwise noncommittal.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said Israel would prepared to let in far more humanitarian aid and to cooperate in reconstruction efforts if the ceasefire holds. But he ruled out “anything close to full normalization of the crossings” as long as Hamas refused to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured in 2006.
That leaves U.N. and Western peace envoys, who said there was no way to go back to the “status quo ante” after the war, scrambling to figure out what, if anything, will be different.
Israel emerges not only in full control of Gaza’s entry points, but by bombing the tunnels, it has now locked the back door for Palestinians, increasing the likelihood of shortages if the main crossings are closed.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald