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Ceasefire marks a shift in the balance of power

IT'S a foolish person who speaks of winners and losers in any war.

TRUCE: Palestinians celebrated after a ceasefire was announced, following eight days of violence that led to more than 150 deaths. Picture: EPA
TRUCE: Palestinians celebrated after a ceasefire was announced, following eight days of violence that led to more than 150 deaths. Picture: EPA

In the Arab-Israeli conflict this especially applies.

If there is one thing of which I'm certain after many decades of covering this interminable battle of political wills, it's that both sides, Palestinian and Israeli, have their own respective narratives of victimhood.

One of the greatest difficulties facing any reporter of this conflict is the extent to which these dual narratives and the bloodshed that accompanies them have a way of blurring the specifics of each individual tragedy.

Writing once about the disinformation, propaganda, charge and counter charge that so characterised the civil war in Lebanon and Beirut during the 1970s and 1980s, one correspondent summed up this burying of actuality with the remark: "There is no truth in Beirut, only versions."

Much the same could be said of the reactions of both Israelis and Palestinians to the tenuous ceasefire that has taken hold in Gaza as either side presents their versions of what was lost and gained from the latest round of bloodletting.

As the sustainability of this ceasefire remains under scrutiny, it is worth reflecting on one of the key triggers to the latest fighting, the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, chief of Hamas's armed wing, the al Qassam Brigades.

I say this because the backstory to his death in many ways aptly illustrates the shifting balance of power we are now witnessing in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

In light of his violent demise at the hands of the Israeli military, it may be difficult for many to believe that for years the Israelis actually viewed the Hamas hardman as crucial to maintaining the balance of power in Gaza.

This was especially the case in 2006 as Hamas rose in political prominence before going head-to-head with its rival Palestinian group Fatah for control of Gaza.

Economically isolated by the Israeli blockade and politically alienated in the Arab world, Hamas was determined to avoid a deadly showdown with Israel.

Sensing this, Israel took the initiative by opening a dialogue with Mr Jabari in an effort to improve its border security and reduce the military activities of Hamas and other radical groups like Islamic Jihad.

Slowly, however, Hamas's position changed as next door in Egypt its ally the Muslim Brotherhood became ever more powerful. Hamas and Mr Jabari received political support from the Muslim Brotherhood, while he was busy procuring weapons from Iran.

As this situation on the ground evolved, Mr Jabari realised there was now no longer the same pressing need to co-operate with Israel, a decision that was to cost him his life when an airstrike hit his car last week, sparking the current crisis in Gaza.

In the wake of his death, the confrontation and ultimate ceasefire that followed, Hamas and Israel find themselves in a greatly altered geopolitical climate. On every one of its borders, Israel faces a growing set of vulnerabilities that would have been hard to imagine before the Arab Spring.

Yes, Jerusalem might take comfort from the fact it has dealt painful blows to its enemy.

But the fact remains that in the wake of the ceasefire and strengthening ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other regional allies, Hamas has more power now as a stateless actor engaged in resistance against Israel than it would as the leading governing party of a state.

While the ceasefire deal may not have got Hamas all that it wanted, Israel has committed to easing the blockade that was imposed to break the Islamist group and to end the kind of "targeted assassinations" that killed Mr Jabari.

Also, after years of isolation, a succession of Arab VIPs have rushed to Gaza to show their solidarity as Israeli warplanes were striking their targets and the leaders of Hamas were treated with careful respect by Egypt, unthinkable in the days of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

If there is any political winner from the current crisis, it is Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, who yesterday assumed sweeping new domestic powers following his diplomatic success in brokering the Gaza ceasefire with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

By contrast, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, barely two months out from a general election, was laid into by opposition figures for not using the mighty army he had positioned on the Gaza borders.

Shaul Mofaz, head of Israel's centrist Kadima party, said yesterday: "I think the goals of the operation weren't achieved."

His views were echoed by some residents of towns in southern Israel that had been hit by rocket fire from Gaza who took to the streets to denounce the ceasefire.

As I said, it would be foolish to speak in terms of winners and losers from this latest conflict in Gaza. The situation remains tense and unpredictable but there is no question that events of the last few days have marked a considerable shift in the Middle East's balance of power.

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