Shock, Awe, and a Belated Soul-Search

JERUSALEM - "If only my three daughters will be the last victims of
this horrible conflict," wept Dr. Ezzadin Abu Al-Aish, a Palestinian
gynaecologist recovering from his wounds in Tel Aviv's Tel Hashomer
hospital. An Israeli tank shell killed three of his nine children aged
20, 15 and 14 as well as a 14-year-old niece in their home in the
Jebaliya refugee camp Saturday. Israel says its forces were responding
to sniper fire.

Israeli TV viewers had already become familiar
with the doctor, who had trained at the Israeli hospital and maintained
regular professional contact with Israeli colleagues. During the war,
through Israel's Channel 10 network, he regularly brought accounts of
Gaza's humanitarian plight into Israeli living rooms.

"I raised my children to be soldiers of peace - I believed medicine
could be a bridge between our two peoples," Dr. Abu Al-Aish said in an
impromptu televised news conference. Many viewers expressed their shock
at his tragedy. But there were other reactions: "Shame on you - why was
your building used to fire on our sons?" one woman yelled.

The woman, Levana Stern, later identified herself as the
mother of three paratroopers, one of whom was serving in Gaza. Other
parents accused the TV stations of promoting "Palestinian propaganda".
This mix of repentance and the contrasting refusal to countenance
repentance have both been triggered by the accumulative damage on
Israel's "image" because of the horrors of their army's three-week
"shock and awe" war on Hamas.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud
Barak paraded the "successful achievement of all our objectives" as
underlying Saturday night's unilateral ceasefire declaration - a
"belated" decision in the view of several top politicians and army
commanders alike. Over the previous few days there had been a growing
perception that the unremitting onslaught on Hamas had reached the
point of diminishing returns.

There's no formal agreement with Hamas. Israel wants to avoid the Islamist organisation being put on an equal footing.

Olmert and Barak warned that if Hamas refuses to hold its fire, Israel
will respond forcefully. On the ground Sunday morning, the only
incidents were those initiated by Hamas. For now, Israeli forces remain
in all areas of Gaza they have conquered. Indications are that Israel
does not intend to stay for long.

The outcome is not quite as clear-cut as the Israeli
leadership would have it. Is the military and political battering which
Hamas has sustained enough to deter it long-term?

Will Israel emerge from the war as diplomatically boosted as many
Israelis would like to imagine: "Israel has become a country riven by
hatred and almost as blood-thirsty as its enemies," wrote columnist
Ofer Shelach in the centre-right newspaper Ma'ariv. "A country that
once had the ambition, in the Biblical phrase 'to be a light unto the
nations', is now proud to have adopted the value system of Vladimir
Putin. If that is victory, woe unto the victors!"

Less concerned with war ethics and more with the military
situation on the ground, Israeli hardliners still doubt the merit of
their government's understanding reached with Egypt, the U.S. and the
Europeans about curbing weapons smuggling into Gaza to refurbish Hamas.

Some Israelis also doubt whether the one-sided ceasefire
guarantees Israel's deterrent capabilities. Yossi Peled, a former army
general and candidate for the right-wing Likud in the forthcoming
elections, said bluntly on Israel television, "Unilateralism is a
proven dirty word - look how badly we came off from our unilateral
withdrawals from south Lebanon (in 2000) and Gaza (in 2005). I fear
that in the not-too-distant future we'll have to take on a strengthened

The ceasefire also signals the start of the election campaign
for the Feb. 10 Israeli national poll. Olmert (who isn't running), and
Barak and Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni (who are challenging the
front-running right-wing Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu), all
anticipate plaudits for their belated ceasefire decision when a sextet
of top European leaders arrive in Jerusalem Sunday night following
their summit in Sharm el-Sheikh with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak,
the power behind the ceasefire plan.

But this is only a prelude. Urgently anticipated is the intervention of
the new U.S. Administration. That's been widely expected ever since
president-elect Barack Obama himself said he would not waste time
getting involved. The ceasefire only parries speculation about the
context in which President Obama will choose to build his venture into
the Middle East minefield: Will he simply become embroiled in the
familiar charges and counter charges of who was justified, and who was
to blame for this war? Or, will he go so far as to grasp the delicate
situation by the horns and embark on an immediate and forceful peace

Even as he was declaring the ceasefire, Olmert at least again put on
record the need to work for the creation of a Palestinian state in the
West Bank and Gaza prepared to live in peace alongside Israel. Israeli
political scientist Zeev Sternhell was more explicit: "The war's
objective must ultimately be political," he wrote in Ha'aretz. "The
devastation visited upon Gaza must be the launching pad of vigorous
negotiations under international auspices for an all-out peace."

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