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Gaza Cease-Fire Deal Was Prefaced by a New Kind of Destruction

Israel and Hamas have agreed to a long-term cease-fire that will halt 50 days of intense violence. But in the lead-up, Israeli forces rained destruction on Gaza as they leveled a series of high-rise buildings. It is unclear to what extent, if at all, this new tactic of bringing down large buildings contributed to the deal announced Tuesday, Aug. 26.

Early reports indicate that some restrictions on trade and travel in Gaza will be lifted and that Palestinians will be able to import large amounts of cement and other construction materials to begin a mammoth rebuilding effort. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed during the Israeli air and ground campaign. If the cease-fire holds, negotiators will reconvene next month to tackle thornier issues, such as construction of an airport in Gaza and the demilitarization of Hamas.

With widespread relief at the cessation of fighting -- the streets of Gaza erupted in celebration upon news of the agreement -- the recent shift in Israeli tactics is likely to be overlooked. Israel previously struck large, high-rise apartment complexes with precision munitions that left buildings standing. During the seven weeks of fighting, Gaza's more upscale apartment and office towers were mostly spared. Their recent destruction was captured in a series of terrifying videos.

Here is the razing of Al Zafer Tower 4 in Gaza.

In a series of early-morning strikes Tuesday, Israel targeted a pair of larger towers. The video below shows the moment the 15-story Basha Tower was struck, which collapsed the building.

Here, a huge trail of debris:

The so-called Italian Complex, an upscale apartment building that was one of the nicer places to live in Gaza, was severely damaged in a separate strike.

Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Passport

Release of American Journalist Shows Qatar Playing Both Sides

"We don't pretend to know everything that happened."

Those are the words of Amy Rosen, a cousin of Peter Theo Curtis, the American journalist who was released from his captivity in Syria over the weekend. Speaking to the New York Times, Rosen said that her family was assured by the government of Qatar, which brokered Curtis's release, that "under no circumstances would a ransom be paid."

But on the news that the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra had decided to free Curtis a week after a video emerged of the brutal execution of James Foley, it is not surprising that Rosen would qualify that statement. Indeed, the U.S. government has categorically denied paying a ransom, and it remains unclear why Curtis was released. (Incidentally, similar questions remain about whether a ransom was paid for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was set free with Qatari help.)

One thing that is clear, however, is the leading role of Qatar in securing Curtis's freedom -- and that goes a long way in explaining what happened here, even if concrete details are scant. In a statement, the Gulf nation said it had worked for Curtis's release because of "Qatar's belief in the principles of humanity and its keenness on the lives of individuals and their right to freedom and dignity." That statement offered no further details.

As it is extremely unlikely that a group like Jabhat al-Nusra would free Curtis, a highly valuable bargaining chip, out of the kindness of its heart, the Qataris probably ponied up the cash to set him free. But why would the Qatari sheikhs do so? The answer lies in the double game the Gulf nation is playing.

The beheading of Foley marked an ugly turn in the Syrian civil war, one that has already been marked by awful brutality on all sides of the conflict. Qatar has played a role in fueling that violence, by funneling arms and weapons to Islamist groups. Some of those weapons have ended up in the hands of hard-line radicals. Qatar also provides a home for a handful of influential Islamist leaders, including the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, and Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi, an al Qaeda financier.

At the same time, Qatar continues to serve as a vital ally of America in the region, playing host to key U.S. military installations and reveling in its role as a power broker.

Events like Foley's execution inevitably upset the balance between Qatar's competing impulses and force its leaders to compensate in one direction or another.

Specifically, the gruesome beheading of Foley put intense pressure on the White House to answer for its efforts to secure his release -- pressure that Qatar has now slightly relieved. Curtis's sudden release provides Barack Obama's administration with a piece of good news -- and tangible evidence that Americans can be freed without Washington doling out ransoms.

This, then, is what a double game looks like.

Photo via EPA/FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION