Egypt Brokers a Gaza Ceasefire

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An Israeli woman is evacuated following a rocket attack from the nearby Gaza Strip, on March 12, 2012 in Ashdod, Israel.

After more than 170 rockets fired by Palestinian militants into Israel, and 37 attacks by the Israeli military into the Gaza Strip, the latest round of warfare appeared to end on Tuesday, as both sides honored a cease-fire brokered by neighboring Egypt.  “Since 1 a.m. there has been what we call quiet,” says Amos Gilad, the number two official at Israel’s ministry of defense. “Egypt deserves the credit. They succeeded here.”

The four-day cycle of missile launches and air strikes began on Friday, when an Israeli aircraft fired into a sedan on a street in Gaza City.  The target was Zuhir al-Qaisi, head of a militant group called the Popular Resistance Committees.  The PRC was little known until last August, when Israel blamed it for a spectacular attack on an Israeli highway leading to the Red Sea resort city of Eilat.  Eight Israelis were killed by well-trained fire teams who crossed into Israel from the lightly guarded Egyptian border.   Israel responded at the time by killing the then-chief of the PRC, and justified assassinating his successor by asserting that intelligence indicated al-Qaisi was planning a similar attack.

Gilad called him a “mega-terrorist” and said that by sending militants south from Gaza through the Sinai Desert, which is largely unpoliced since Egyptian police walked off the job during last year’s revolution, the “the idea is to disrupt our relations with Egypt. They almost succeeded in August.” Indeed, while battling the highway attackers, Israeli troops killed several Egyptian troops, precipitating a diplomatic crisis with the neighbor Israel regards as most critical to its security.

Relatives of Islamic Jihad militant Mohammed Daher, who was killed the night before in an Israeli strike, mourn during his funeral in Gaza City on March 13, 2012.

Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images

On the Palestinian side, this latest round of warfare was distinguished by its lopsided casualty counts: No Israelis were killed, thanks in large part to the effectiveness of the “Iron Dome” anti-missile systems arrayed around cities; Palestinian fatalities totaled 25, mostly militants launching rockets but including at least four civilians. Some 80 Palestinians were wounded.

The other striking feature of the last four days was the virtual absence of Hamas.  The militant Islamist group that governs Gaza played no visible role either in the fighting or in the articulation of the cease-fire. (“There is no agreement with Hamas,” Gilad emphasized. “We agree with Egypt that there will be quietness.”)  Instead the PRC and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for most of the missile barrages, issuing statements and even holding a news conference.  The situation pointed up the delicacy of Hamas’ position in Gaza. As the elected government it is held responsible for transpires in the strikingly poor coastal enclave of 1.7 million — not only by Israel and the West but also by Egypt, which has made clear it wants Gaza quiet.  The group’s political leader, Khaled Mashaal, has said Hamas will eschew armed actions for the near future and join the rival Palestinian faction Fatah in opposing the Israeli occupation through “popular resistance.” That position is also encouraged by Egypt — but not by Iran, which has fallen out with Hamas in recent months.

Iran does, however, continue to support Islamic Jihad, supplying it with the Grad missiles that it fired toward Israel.  Gilad also suggested that the Islamic Republic was supporting the PRC, seeing the group as “a third option” in Gaza.  But it was Islamic Jihad that announced a “victory rally” for Tuesday night in Gaza City, a tattered, densely populated place that Palestinians who have been to both say calls to mind Baghdad.

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