Diplomatic Efforts Yield Prospect of Tenuous Cease-Fire in Gaza

Tensions are still running high in the Middle East, and the potential for hostilities to reignite in the coming weeks remains

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A Palestinian child climbs over the remains of a house reportedly destroyed by an overnight Israeli air strike on the village of Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on Nov. 18, 2012

Before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to arrive late on Tuesday in Jerusalem, Hamas announced that a tentative cease-fire agreement with Israel had nearly been reached in the Gaza Strip. But Clinton’s trip isn’t for nothing. Tensions are still running high throughout the region, and the potential for hostilities to reignite in the coming weeks remains.

A “calming down” period was expected to be formally announced on Tuesday night at 2100 GMT in Cairo, where negotiators on all sides had been meeting to hammer out a deal. But that was postponed amid reports that Israel had yet to sign off on a deal to end the violence that began seven days ago.

Hostilities began when Israel assassinated Hamas’ top military commander in the Gaza Strip. Israel then launched an aerial-bombing campaign targeting Hamas sites where bombs were suspected of being housed or made. Operation Pillar of Defense, as Israel called it, came in response to months of Hamas bombing in southern Israel. While most of those bombs — 800 in the month leading up to last week’s escalation — were deflected by Israel’s U.S.-subsidized Iron Dome system, which shoots down incoming rockets, more than a million residents in southern Israel have been living under constant threat. Three Israelis and more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the past week.

(PHOTOS: A New Gaza War: Israel and Palestinian Militants Trade Fire)

The cease-fire is “very fragile,” says an Arab diplomatic source, “one bomb hits Tel Aviv, and it’s over.” To some extent, the source said, Israel was testing the Arab response in a changed political landscape. The Arab Spring shuffled Hamas’ allegiances in the region, from Shi‘ite Iran and Syria to Sunni Turkey, Qatar and Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood currently in power in Egypt decades ago spawned Hamas, which is Sunni, and Hamas recently moved its headquarters from Damascus to Cairo. Israel wanted to see what the reaction would be to action in Gaza, the diplomat said.

Israel has parliamentary elections coming up on Jan. 22. Once those are over, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely be stronger politically should Israel decide that ground action is needed in Gaza. “This operation is politically very risky especially when you’re going to the precipice of a ground operation ahead of elections,” says Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is not a Prime Minister prone to taking a great risk.” Though Israel has amassed tens of thousands of troops along the Gaza border, the cease-fire means they are unlikely to cross it — at least not right now. Aerial bombing has taken out most of Israel’s targets. The only action left would be to physically go in and dismantle Hamas’ rocket assembly lines.

Part of what provoked Netanyahu to action was Hamas’ use of Iranian-made Fajr 5 medium-range missiles, smuggled from Iran through Sudan and the Egyptian Sinai, and which have extended Hamas’ reach to the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel wants to not only strip Hamas of this capability, but to discourage future attacks. “You remember the war with Hizballah in 2006?” Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren told TIME on Friday. “Hizballah hasn’t launched a single rocket into Israel since. They learned it was not worth their while. That’s our goal here with Hamas.”

(MORE: The Israeli Assault on Gaza: How Surgical Are the Strikes?)

Oren said that like that conflict, there’s a good chance that Iran could be behind Hamas’ aggression. “How much does Iran want a distraction from Iran’s nuclear program? You can’t discount that,” he said. “Most of these terrorist organizations — I mean Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Resistance Committee — are fully owned and directed by Iran. Iran has every interest in provoking a war in the south. It’s distracting not only from the Iranian nuclear program, it’s also detracting from what’s happening in Syria.”

Israel’s impressive display of its Iron Dome technology, which has shot down 90% of Hamas’ incoming rockets, isn’t just a message to Hamas, it’s also one to Iran and Hizballah. If Israel decides to send ground troops into Gaza or bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, lobbing bombs at Israel would be mostly ineffective.

MORE: Iron Dome: A Missile Shield That Works