Imagine for a moment you are the weak, ineffectual Secretary General of the weak, ineffectual United Nations. But being the third-level diplomatic bureaucrat you are, you fly off to the Middle East armed with a toothless Security Council resolution calling for a cease fire, and meet in all the relevant regional capitals urging the Israelis and Hamas to stop their warring. As it happens, the day you arrive in Jerusalem, the Israeli army shells your clearly delineated refugee headquarters in Gaza City. How's that for a nice "fuck you"?
The Israelis claim that an RPG was fired at Israeli troops out of the UN compound -- hence the return fire. Maybe -- but since there aren't any qualified journalists in Gaza City, all we have is indignant UN workers (whose sympathies are with the Palestinian cause) and the less than impartial IDF spokesman to deal with. As with every other incident (like the al-Fakhura school incident), there is enough dis- and mis-information to keep both sides happy and miserable.
By all accounts, we are witnessing the dangerous endgame to Operation Cast Lead. Israeli and Hamas diplomats are speaking indirectly through Cairo on either a temporary cease fire or a permanent cessation of hostilities. If anyone seriously believed some of the earlier Israeli ministerial pronouncements that Cast Lead would lead to the toppling of Hamas, the talks in Cairo, in which Israel is yet again dealing with Hamas, prove otherwise. The Israeli Army is reportedly pressing ahead slowly into Gaza City itself (not because of great resistance, I imagine, but because slow steady pressure will likely produce a "better" cease fire deal for Israel). Late today, Israel announced it had killed Said Siam, the Hamas Interior Minister (essentially in charge of internal security -- a major player). Hamas for its part has fired off some of its longer range Grad missiles into Beersheva, with serious injuries. The tempo is picking up on both sides. Will the fighting stop in time for Barack Obama's inauguration? That now seems to be the artificial deadline that Israel is working with.
But if Olmert can say "fuck you" to UN Secretary General Ban, and can announce in public that President Bush is his poodle, what is to prevent this bizarre little "leader" from making the same mistake twice (that last weekend of the Second Lebanon War), and pushing the endgame into some awful and unexpected outcome? Of course, Olmert alone is not in charge -- he still must work in tandem with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but the unpredictability of urban ground fighting makes these next few hours particularly fragile.
Whatever happens in the Gaza Strip the next few days, the inevitable result is this: the "military" power of Hamas has been seriously decreased, but its international, popular, and inter-Arab prestige has been increased. This is why I wrote at the outset of the Israeli operation that I could not understand why Israel started this war. Let's say Tom Friedman was right yesterday in The New York Times and the tactical winner of the 2006 Lebanon War was Israel. According to Friedman, by pounding Lebanon the way it did, Israel created a credible deterrent force which caused Hezbollah to essentially remain a paper tiger throughout this current conflict. But at what cost? Lebanon is now a Hezbollah-run country, Hezbollah's missile capacity remains strong, and the clock ticks towards the day when Hezbollah will choose to unleash its arsenal.
So now let's look at Gaza and Hamas: Hamas has been crushed, but it will still have missiles; Hamas has been humiliated on the battlefield, but it is now legitimated internationally by engaging Israel in a new round of political negotiations; Gaza has been seriously damaged, and all of Hamas's infrastructure is decimated, but when the dust settles, it will be Hamas that supervises reconstruction and compensation (in league with Israel, which will continue to be the principle choke point for all ingoing supplies and materiel) and return to its social-network glory.
The good news? This war may soon end. The bad news? This war may soon end. With a cessation to fighting on the horizon, watch for both sides to pull out all the stops in the unsettling Middle Eastern variation of the game "chicken."