by Chu Lan Huong
The world can now breathe a collective sigh of relief that a ceasefire has taken effect, halting a week-long exchange of rocket fire and air strikes between the Gaza Strip and Israel that had escalated to threats by Israel to kill the top commander of militant Palestinian faction Hamas and send in ground troops.
The hostilities left over 150 dead in Gaza, including 90 civilians and 30 children. More than 1,200 were injured. On the Israeli side of the border, five were killed and 13 injured, with damage from the long-range rockets fired into Israel by Hamas limited by Israel's "Iron Dome" missile defence system.
By the time the ceasefire was agreed upon, Israeli troops had been amassed along the border with Gaza, raising fears of a ground offensive similar to that in 2008-09. The Israeli army had called up 16,000 reservists and approved plans to call up an additional 70,000; four years ago, 10,000 reservists were mobilised.
The Gaza conflict heightened tensions before the latest bid by the Palestinians for observer membership at the UN planned for later this month.
The US and Israel have been lobbying furiously against the Palestinian bid, which the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmud Abbas, was scheduled to put to the UN General Assembly on November 29. The Palestinian envoy to the UN, Riyad Mansour, told AFP that Israel escalated the violence to torpedo the UN vote this month and influence Israel's own elections in January.
"I believe part of the timing of the attack by the Israelis on Gaza is trying to divert attention away from our energies in mobilising the international community for the UN vote," AFP quoted Mansour as saying.
With UN membership potentially allowing access to the International Criminal Court and other multilateral bodies, Mansour said recognition "will open so many doors for us, to allow us to defend ourselves in a better way politically, diplomatically and legally".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also wants to be seen taking a tough stand against Hamas, the more militant Palestinian faction that controls Gaza. According to analysts, air strikes were likely to drive Israeli public opinion toward the more hardline government, distracting voters from domestic issues.
"The impact of the Gaza crisis on the upcoming Israeli elections is crystal clear," the deputy director of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies under the Viet Nam Foreign Ministry, Le Dinh Tinh, told Viet Nam News.
"A strong position by any candidate and party would lead to stronger support from certain constituencies, especially those in Israel who favour nationalism. It is a correct belief that foreign policy actions often originate from domestic politics."
The latest Gaza conflict has also put more pressue on US President Barack Obama, who has faced difficulty in mediating Middle East peace since he took office in 2009.
The Obama administration was pivoting to a long-term focus on the Asia-Pacific region, strategically and economically, Tinh said. It has withdrawn troops out of Iraq and was prepared to do so in Afghanistan by 2014.
"A more heightened focus on the Asia-Pacific would normally draw resources from other areas, but this is not totally the case for the US in the Middle East," Tinh said. "Aside a time-tested alliance with Israel, the US has important interests, ranging from geopolitical calculations to more down-to-the earth interests such as oil and protection of American citizens living and working in the region."
With the unfolding of the latest crisis threatening those interests, the US immediately geared up its efforts at getting the violence under control. Immediately following the East Asia Summit in Cambodia, to which she accompanied Obama on his first foreign trip following his re-election this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately flew to the region to meet with leaders of Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians to help engineer the new ceasefire.
In the long run, both the US and Israeli governments are on the record that there can be no Palestinian state without direct peace talks, yet all sides have been at an impasse for over two years. The Palestinians refuse talks while Israel expands its settlements in the occupied territories, although President Abbas has said that he would return to talks if the UN vote were successful.
Israel has successfully exploited the division of the occupied territories, with Gaza under the control of Hamas and the West Bank under the less-militant Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Earlier this week, however, the rival factions had agreed to end their infighting in a show of solidarity over the spiralling Gaza crisis.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – like Abbas, a member of Fatah – said in a statement quoted by the AFP that there was "an urgent need to respond positively" to the idea of a meeting between all Palestinian groups in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Tinh, however, saw this as unlikely, predicting a hardening of the position of the current Israeli government led by the conservative Likud Party as it heads into elections, its lingering concern over Iran's nuclear programme, and Hamas anti-Israel activities.
"In the past, the conflict has broken into violence not a few times, but after each time, things seem to go back to status quo for the Palestinians," Tinh said. — VNS