Gaza cease-fire: Will it last?

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The World

ASHKELON, Israel — Danny Makhlouf tightens the bolts around a water pipe outside the house he's building for a client. Windowless and unpainted, the home might be said to look like a bomb hit it. Not far away are some buildings that really were struck by bombs.

Makhlouf has a sun-beaten face and leathered skin the color of old tea bags. He pushes back his woolen stocking cap, rubs sweat from his brow, and looks into the clouds toward Gaza, seven miles away, watching for another rocket.

Unlike most Israelis, when the smoke streaks into the sky from the launch of one of Hamas's rockets, 70-year-old Makhlouf shakes his head and thinks of his one-time friend, the man on whose orders the missiles may have been launched. He's thinking about the Palestinian a lot in the tense day after a unilateral cease-fire was declared by Israel and Hamas vowed to continue to resist what it sees as an illegal blockade of Gaza.

"Ismail Haniya used to work for me," he says. "He was a warm man and a good plasterer."
Haniya, the top Hamas political leader in Gaza, was Palestinian Prime Minister for 16 months until President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed him in July 2007 after the mini-civil war between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah. (Hamas doesn't recognize the dismissal, so in Gaza Haniya remains Prime Minister.)

The Hamas leader worked for Makhlouf on projects all over Israel until he went to jail for his role in the first intifada in 1989.

"If I saw him again," says Makhlouf, "I'd tell him to stop the violence. Anyway, with me, he never talked about politics."

Haniya agreed to do some talking Sunday, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad followed Israel in declaring a cease-fire after three weeks of violence in Gaza. World leaders descended on the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheikh to figure out how to make the two unilateral cease-fires into a full agreement that might hold for longer than the week Hamas has given Israel to pull its troops out of the Gaza Strip.

One thing is clear to Israelis and Gazans — it had better not be just talk.

The conflict has shown the deadly effectiveness of Israel's military technology, as well as some of its limitations. It has given the previously shunned Hamas the hollow victory of recognition in a U.N. ceasefire resolution, at the cost of dreadful devastation in Gaza.

(Read about the challenges facing humanitarian organizations in Gaza in GlobalPost's interview with CARE's Martha Myers.)

From near the Israeli border with Gaza, 17 rockets and mortars went up Sunday before Hamas announced its cease-fire. Watching some of the rockets lift off, I count six seconds until an Israeli missile hones in on the launch site. The Hamas men who sent the projectiles toward Israeli civilians might well be dead before their missiles hit the ground.

It's an astonishing technological combination of surveillance drones, military communications and missile technology on the part of the Israelis. Of course, five seconds is only enough time to identify the launch site and fire right back. It isn't long enough to decide if there are other sites in that vicinity — schools, UN food warehouses, homes — that shouldn't be hit. Israel's technological successes may also have been its greatest failures in this war.

The route these Hamas missiles take into Gaza remains the key point in the formulation of a real cease-fire agreement. The old Soviet missiles are sent by Iran via Hizballah. They're smuggled through Egypt's Sinai desert and under the border in tunnels to the Gaza Strip.

As Egypt hosts the cease-fire talks, the great unsaid among diplomats and politicians heading to Sharm e-Sheikh is the role Egypt — or more precisely Egyptian corruption — plays in allowing the smuggling to continue.

On my many trips to Rafah, the town straddling the border in southern Gaza, I befriended several men who ran smuggling operations. Some of them are dead now. They all told me that they paid off the desperately poor Egyptian border guards on the other side of the fence to let their weapons and other goods through the tunnels.

No amount of rhetoric at Sharm e-Sheikh is likely to prevent a negligibly paid, illiterate border guard from being seduced by what is, to a smuggler, a relatively small bribe. But Egypt has resisted suggestions that foreign troops or observers man the border instead.

So the fighting comes, for now, to an end. Hamas insists that it won't agree to a full cease-fire unless Israel opens up the crossings into Gaza to allow goods to enter. Nothing new there —they'd been demanding that throughout the six-month ceasefire that Hamas refused to renew at the end of December.

Meanwhile Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's domestic security service, the Shin Bet, told the Israeli cabinet Sunday that, without an agreement to halt the weapons smuggling, Hamas will have rebuilt all the tunnels Israel bombed during this current operation within a few months.

If that sounds to you like 1,200 people lost their lives for nothing, you would be in the company of many long time observers in this region who agree with that assessment.