Following eight days of warfare in the Gaza Strip and Negev, and a concerted diplomatic effort led by Egypt and the United States to end the fighting, a cease-fire came into effect last night at 9 P.M. Under a memorandum of understanding reached in Egypt Wednesday, the cease-fire will be under the patronage of the Egyptian government, which will oversee its implementation.
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Israeli approval of the understandings was reached Wednesday afternoon at the end of a meeting of the nine-man security cabinet. In the hours prior to the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held intensive discussions in Jerusalem and later in Cairo with the Israeli and Egyptian leaderships.
President Barack Obama followed the talks from his plane while returning to the United States, and later from the White House, from where he pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reply positively to the Egyptian proposal. At the end of the meeting between the nine ministers, after 6 P.M. Wednesday, Netanyahu called Obama and told him of his decision.
Both a White House statement and one from the Prime Minister's Office declared that Netanyahu "has accepted the recommendation" of Obama "to give the Egyptians' suggestion for a cease-fire a chance."
Netanyahu received American compensation for his agreement to a cease-fire. President Obama emphasized to him that Israel has the right to self-defense if the cease-fire is violated. Obama also promised to increase U.S. military assistance to Israel, especially regarding the prevention of arms smuggling into Gaza. Obama also promised Netanyahu that he will find further funding to purchase more Iron Dome and other anti-missile systems.
According to the understandings, Israel has undertaken not to launch any attacks on Gaza - by land, sea or air - and to stop the assassinations of the heads of Palestinian militant groups and not invade any Palestinian-held land.
A senior diplomatic source said that if Israel identifies preparations for an attack from the Gaza Strip, it reserves the right to self-defense and will act to thwart it. Also, Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations have promised to stop all attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip, including rocket fire and attacks along the border.
The understandings are seen as an achievement for Hamas, which, since the cease-fire negotiations began, has demanded an Israeli obligation not to enter Gazan territory, including the 500-meter-wide buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the border. Another perceived accomplishment for Hamas is that the understandings do not force upon it the responsibility for enforcing the cease-fire on the other organizations in the Gaza Strip.
The understandings reached to stop the warfare are almost identical to those reached following Operation Cast lead at the start of 2009. The only practical clause in the agreements is the cessation of fighting, according to the principle of "quiet will be answered by quiet." As in Operation Cast Lead, Israel has received guarantees from the United States that it will deal with weapons-smuggling into the Strip, but estimates are that the practical meaning of this clause will be extremely limited.
The wording of the understandings says that within 24 hours from the moment the cease-fire begins, discussions will begin about opening the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel and between the Strip and Egypt, as well as about easing restrictions on the movement of people and goods. The discussions will also deal with removing the limitations on Palestinian movement in the buffer zone close to the border fence. During these talks, each of the sides can raise other issues, such as that of weapons-smuggling into Gaza.
The understandings have cemented Egypt's position as a conciliator between Israel and Hamas. According to the understandings, if one side has reservations about the implementation, it will turn to Cairo - the cease-fire's sponsor - which will "inspect the implementation."
Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman praised Egypt in their joint declarations to the media Wednesday. "President Mohammed Morsi deserves the compliments for his ability to take responsible decisions," Lieberman said.
Obama telephoned the Egyptian president Wednesday night and thanked him for his efforts to bring about the cease-fire and for the leadership he showed.
In a short statement released after the cease-fire came into force Wednesday night, Netanyahu began to outline his campaign for the upcoming Knesset election, presenting Operation Pillar of Defense as one of multiple achievements for Israel.
"The terror organizations assumed we would refrain from acting against them. They were wrong," the prime minister said. "We hit their most senior officers, destroyed thousands of rockets that were aimed at southern Israel and most of the rockets aimed at central Israel. We destroyed Hamas' control over the Strip. I must note that all this was done with steadfast support by leading elements in the international community."
Barak said that "all the operation's aims were fulfilled," despite the fact that the operation's aims were only loosely defined. "Hamas and the Islamic Jihad received painful blows. Now Hamas is responsible for maintaining the peace," he said.
The Palestinian side also presented the eight days of fighting as an achievement. Hamas' political head Khaled Meshal said in a press conference in Cairo that "the Israeli attack failed and the leaders of the enemy failed in their adventure. Eight days of fighting forced them to give in to our conditions. The destruction left by Israel did nothing to change the fact that the resistance won."