Who Won in Gaza? Body Language and the Cease-Fire

The way the Palestinians and Israelis delivered the news of the truce was telling. Might the blockade be lifted?

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A Hamas government office is seen from a nearby building after Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on Nov. 21, 2012

The Understanding Regarding Cease-Fire in Gaza Strip runs only one page and, even counting headings, just 24 lines. But it’s what flickered between those lines that appears to account for the vastly different demeanors of the enemies agreeing to it.

Both Israel and Hamas vowed to stop the shooting that has gone on in and around Gaza for eight days, leaving more than 160 people dead — mostly Palestinians, five of them Israelis. Yet a somber air clung to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he announced the cessation of hostilities from Jerusalem. In contrast, while facing the cameras in Cairo, Hamas chairman Khaled Meshaal was almost as animated as the streets of Gaza City, which were ecstatic with the sound of celebratory gunfire.

The Palestinians may have something to celebrate. Beyond the actual cessation of hostilities, the cease-fire deal makes a promise: to “improve conditions for the people in the Gaza Strip,” as Hillary Clinton said in announcing the understanding. The text itself speaks of “opening the crossings and facilitating the transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movement.” In what is sometimes called the world’s largest prison, that sounds like a significant change — one for which Hamas will take full credit if it comes true.

(MORE: How the Gaza Truce Makes Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood a Peace Player)

“The blockade can be lifted off Gaza,” Meshaal proclaimed. The statement carried a hopeful lilt, but to judge by the sound of the Israeli officials appearing on satellite news channels through the evening, it suggested can may well become will. For at least five years, Israel’s navy has barred ships from approaching Gaza’s coast, a blockade that, when combined with Israel’s former draconian restrictions on foodstuffs allowed into the enclave by land, inspired pro-Palestinian activists to try to challenge the Israelis at sea. Israel’s navy invariably stopped the flotillas — in the most famous case, killing six Turks in May 2010 while boarding the Mavi Marmara in the “flotilla fiasco.” Once captured, the vessels were always diverted to an Israeli port.

But on CNN, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, suggested it will be enough in the future to simply inspect boats bound for Gaza, to assure they are not smuggling the arms shipments that have been found in the past. “It’s not a blockade in the full sense,” Oren said. “We reserve the right to inspect ships.”

Netanyahu’s chief spokesman, Mark Regev, was also laying the foundations for a new approach. “The restrictions were imposed as a result of hostilities,” he told al-Jazeera English, implying that, if rockets no longer fly out of Gaza, holding half of Israel hostage to their bomb shelters, life would get easier for residents of the strip as well. The goal, Regev said, is “a future that’s better for both Gazans and Israelis.”

“If the south’s quiet, that enables us to be more forthcoming,” he explained to CNN.

No Egyptian official was making the rounds of the English-language channels, so it was less clear whether the main land crossing into Gaza — the Rafah station on its western border with Egypt — would finally be thrown open. But that was one of the demands put forward by Hamas, and Meshaal was effusive in his praise for his hosts — a government now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood movement that gave birth to Hamas. “Palestine lives through the conscience of Egypt,” Meshaal said. “Egypt did not sell out the resistance.”

(PHOTOS: A New Gaza War: Israel and Palestinian Militants Trade Fire)

He also offered words intended to reassure anyone — Egyptian or Palestinian — who fear that ideology or geography will draw Gaza into Cairo’s orbit as it emerges from isolation, or exists apart from the West Bank, which is governed by another Palestinian faction, the Fatah party led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “Gaza is part of the Palestinian homeland,” Meshaal said. “It is not a separate entity.”

It’s too early to tell whether the fine print in the cease-fire understanding will, in fact, come to anything. The text says only that issues like freedom of movement “shall be dealt with” after the cease-fire is 24 hours old. That assumes it will hold. A handful of rockets were launched in the first hours, though Israeli officials said they expected that. “There is a braking distance of a day or two till Hamas will fully stop,” an Israeli military official tells TIME. “The major question is if they will continue to shoot. We bought time and quiet.”

Indeed, on Wednesday night, Netanyahu’s government brought out a tape measure to assess the accomplishments of eight days of warfare, almost all of them from the air: targets struck, 1,500; senior operatives killed, 7; rockets launched toward Israel, 1,506; number intercepted by Iron Dome, 421. The almost precise parity — between rockets launched out of Gaza and Israeli shells fired in — may have been telling. The Israel Defense Forces spokesman proclaimed that Operation Pillar of Defense had “inflicted severe damage to Hamas and its military capabilities.” The stated goal of the operation when it began was “restoring deterrence,” yet nearly as many projectiles flew out of Gaza on the seventh day as on the third and fourth.

“They wanted to destroy the infrastructure of the resistance of Hamas,” Meshaal said. “I don’t think they have done so much. We can count how many buildings they destroyed … They have nothing else to show, and our rockets continued to strike them, until the last moment. The free people cannot be deterred. The Israeli adventure has failed.”

— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

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