Contrary to the expectations of many analysts, the ceasefire that was agreed in June between Hamas in Gaza and Israel and lasted longer than any other ceasefire since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, has been facing serious difficulties in recent weeks.
The past month witnessed a return to violence that included rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli areas and Israeli air raids and shelling that left many casualties on the Palestinian side, in addition to the tight blockade Israel has imposed that has seen only four shipments of humanitarian goods reach Gaza since November 4.
Why does a ceasefire that lasted successfully for five months face these problems only a month before it was due to end or be extended? The answer would seem rooted mainly in domestic Israeli politics and to a lesser extent in Gaza. This is primarily because Israel is the determining factor in deciding the state of relations with Gaza, whether peaceful or violent. Hamas, furthermore, has benefitted from the ceasefire and is clearly interested in renewing it, particularly because the calm enabled the Islamist movement to consolidate its power in Gaza.
There have been many criticisms in Israel of the ceasefire, particularly from the right of the political spectrum, but also from a much wider sector in Israel that, for emotional reasons, opposed a ceasefire when an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, remained captive in Gaza. One of the main criticisms leveled at the Israeli government is that it entered into a ceasefire with what, in Israeli terminology, is a "terrorist organization". But there were also strong arguments that the ceasefire simply enabled Hamas to improve its military capabilities and thus prepare for the next round of fighting. In addition, the ceasefire did not secure the release of Shalit nor did it put sufficient pressure on Hamas to continue negotiations over a prisoner exchange.
Thus there are two main reasons for the current return to violence. The first is that Israel, which also has an interest in the ceasefire, wants to change the terms of any renewed deal. Israel wants two things from an extended deal. First is either the release of Shalit in the context of a prisoner exchange, or, at least, a resumption of negotiations over such an exchange. Secondly, the Egypt-Gaza border, which is neither regulated to allow Israel to hold Egypt responsible for any possible breaches, nor closed, is proving a major irritation to Israel and the country will want some measure of order at Rafah.
The other reason that the ceasefire is currently shaky has to do with the forthcoming elections in Israel. Ehud Barak, the current defense minister, is himself running for the highest office and is trying to use (or abuse) his current position to improve his public standing. Hence the increase in tension that might go so far as, but no further, than a limited military operation that would harm Hamas militarily but not involve the kind of engagement that could lead to dramatic failure. Such a limited but serious operation should also ensure better terms for Israel in a renewed ceasefire deal.
Nevertheless, it is Hamas that finds itself in a win-win situation in such a scenario. Although an Israeli military operation will harm Hamas militarily it will benefit the movement politically by ensuring Palestinian and Arab sympathy for the movement. This in turn will embarrass the Palestinian Authority and other Arab regimes, which will find themselves obliged to express sympathy with Hamas and call for an end to such attacks. It is for these reasons that many leaders from the Arab world have been trying to intercede with the Israeli leadership to prevent any Israeli military adventure.- Published 1/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Hamas will decide
by Yossi Alpher
In and around the Gaza Strip we confront a potentially lethal situation. The current ceasefire is due to end in barely two weeks unless new terms can be negotiated between Israel and Hamas. Ten days of fighting last month demonstrated just how easily the two sides can slide back into conflict. In parallel, both Israeli and Palestinian politics are becoming increasingly volatile, with Gaza almost beckoning as an arena where ambitious and even ruthless politicians can seemingly prove their mettle to the voters.
Israel is moving into an election campaign in which Minister of Defense Ehud Barak is running at the head of one party while the former head of another, the soon-to-be-indicted PM Ehud Olmert, remains in power with nothing to lose and no one to account to for his decision-making. Judging by his advocacy of caution, the beleaguered Barak, whose standing has plummeted in the polls, does not want to fight an election while fighting in Gaza. In parallel, Olmert appears increasingly capable of negotiating a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas, mediated by Egypt, that releases hundreds of hardened terrorists in exchange for a single Israeli soldier and boosts Hamas' popularity in the Arab world in general and among Palestinians in particular.
At the right end of the Israeli political spectrum, bellicose politicians from the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu are calling for a much tougher approach to Gaza--one that they will, however, hesitate to apply if and when they are elected and take power.
On the Palestinian side, the future of the Gaza ceasefire is interacting with the question of the future of President Mahmoud Abbas: does he continue to serve after January 9, and does Hamas still recognize him after that date or does it name its own Palestinian president? If, as Abbas has recently intimated, the outcome of his constitutional confrontation with Hamas is an initiative for new Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections, such a development could profoundly affect the Gaza ceasefire. For in the event that Hamas agrees to new elections and cooperates in holding them in Gaza as well as the West Bank, it would presumably wish to extend the current relative quiet. But if, on the other hand, Hamas does not agree with Abbas' decision, it would likely prefer renewed conflict with Israel as the backdrop for the ongoing internal Palestinian confrontation.
So much for politics. The broad strategic backdrop against which all these scenarios and speculations are playing out is equally discouraging. For its part, Hamas knows what it wants: to take over the West Bank as well as Gaza and eventually all of mandatory Palestine, as part and parcel of the Arab world's Islamist revolution. In the interim, it is prepared to look for a long term modus vivendi with its stronger neighbor Israel, but only if the latter accepts draconian terms such as the comprehensive right of return that are intended to weaken it toward the day when it collapses.
In contrast, none of Hamas' neighbors has defined a workable strategy for dealing with the situation in Gaza. Out and out military conquest would be too costly for Israel, which has no exit strategy. Egypt has no desire to reoccupy Palestinian land as it did between 1948 and 1967. The West Bank-based PLO has only begun to build a military force that could conceivably, with problematic Israeli connivance, retake the Strip some day.
Meanwhile, Israel's economic boycott, applied with PLO, Egyptian and international backing, has failed to produce the desired political result while inflicting unacceptable humanitarian hardship. And Israel refuses to engage Hamas politically, not only because the latter won't talk to Israel on reasonable terms but because Israel-Hamas political contacts would sabotage any remaining chance of mounting a successful two-state peace process with Abbas in the West Bank.
Thus, looking to the months ahead, we confront only two likely scenarios: either an ongoing ceasefire, however unstable and tentative, or a return to conflict along limited terms whereby Hamas fires rockets at a gradually expanding radius of Israeli villages and cities and Israel responds with painful blows that fall short of any pretense of ending the fighting and resolving the issue. The first scenario would serve the political prospects of both moderate Palestinians and Israelis; the second would play into the hands of the hawks on both sides.
Sadly, because only Hamas has a clearly defined strategy in this conflict, it is probably its actions that will determine which scenario we end up with.- Published 1/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Continued calm in the interest of both sides
an interview with Mkhaimar Abusada
bitterlemons: To what extent do you feel the start of the current hostilities in Gaza was the result of domestic politics on either side.
Abusada: It was Israel that breached the tahdiya [calm] on November 4. I would venture that there were some domestic considerations behind this. Since Ehud Barak is the minister of defense and Barak's Labor party is doing very badly in Israeli public opinion with many polls showing it will be the main loser in Israeli elections, maybe he was trying to boost his reputation by launching an operation in Gaza.
bitterlemons: But do you not think the ceasefire is in the interests of both sides?
Abusada: Yes, it is. For Israel, the calm means that the political divisions between Hamas and Fateh, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, will deepen. At the same time, Israel faces a dilemma. On the one hand, it has no answer to the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. On the other, Israel is not in a position to launch a comprehensive military operation against Gaza for a number of reasons: first, it would mean re-uniting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas, which Israel does not want since the current situation is an excuse for Israel to stay away from a political agreement with Abbas. The second is that it would simply be too costly, and Israel is not ready for this.
Hamas is also very interested in the calm. Over the past five months, the movement has consolidated its grip on power over the Gaza Strip. It has been able to impose order and end the lawlessness of some major families here. It is the calm that has enabled the movement to concentrate its efforts on exercising its power here.
bitterlemons: But if both sides are interested in the calm, then why have these low-level hostilities continued for nearly a month, accompanied by the tight closure on the Gaza Strip?
Abusada: It doesn't make a lot of sense. Israel said its original operation here was an effort to protect itself from what it said was a plan to capture Israeli soldiers. I think Israel acted to defend its soldiers, but that doesn't mean it isn't interested in the ceasefire. Israel could have let certain incidents in the past month pass to calm the situation, but we must also note that Israel has not resorted to assassinating political leaders or to any major incursion. What Israel is doing, which is very harmful, is collectively punishing Gazans by closing the commercial crossings. I think this is a way Israel sees as still keeping the door open to a resumption of the calm.
bitterlemons: To what extent do you think both sides are engaged in a kind of negotiation over the terms of extending the ceasefire?
Abusada: The calm expires on December 18 and the Palestinian resistance groups will meet to decide whether they want to renew the ceasefire. They will look at a number of factors: One is whether Israel violated the ceasefire agreement, which they all feel Israel did by closing the commercial crossings. The other factor is whether it is in the interest of the Palestinian people to have continued calm.
My sense is the groups will want to extend the ceasefire. The situation here in Gaza is very tough as a result of the siege. We've been in this situation for 26 days and it is very grave. Since the Palestinian groups are taking the national interests of the people into consideration I believe they will want continued calm
But there is another problem, which is that Egypt, which mediated the original ceasefire agreement, is not keen on doing so again. Cairo is very angry with Hamas for boycotting the national dialogue last month. The Egyptians also feel that both Israel and the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, have violated the ceasefire agreement, so I don't think Egypt is keen on playing the mediator again.
bitterlemons: You mention that it's in Israel's interest to have continued calm, but does Israel also want to change the terms of the ceasefire?
Abusada: Yes. We are approaching the end of the current agreement and I think by closing the commercial crossings, Israel is trying to change the terms of any renewed agreement in two ways: Israel wants Hamas to end any tunnel digging along the Israeli border, and Israel wants Hamas to stop military training. I am not sure, however, if these conditions will be met.
bitterlemons: Do you think Israel wants to include a deal for Gilad Shalit in any renewed agreement?
Abusada: Israel would love to include Shalit in any renewed deal, but this is a complicated issue and I don't think Hamas is ready to give up on Shalit. Palestinians have paid a very high price for the capture of Shalit. Unless Israel releases the prisoners Hamas is asking for I don't think Hamas will back down and we will see Shalit freed or even part of any renewed ceasefire deal.- Published 1/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Harnessing the conflict
by Akiva Eldar
President Shimon Peres is convinced that a single terrorist attack that took place in the Jordan Valley in October 1988 sealed the fate of the elections that were held the next day. Some observers concur that the reports of a mother burned to death with three of her children drew thousands of floating Jewish votes to the political right, far from the camp of Peres, who called for dialogue with our Palestinian neighbors.
Less than six years later, in April 1996, after a single errant artillery shell killed 105 people in a shelter in Kafr Kana in southern Lebanon in the course of the IDF's Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israeli Arabs punished Peres at the polls yet again. Thousands chose to stay home and helped Binyamin Netanyahu return the Likud to power by a narrow margin.
The political and at times even the military system have learned to harness the Israel-Arab conflict to their needs. The right recruits the fear of terrorism, the nuclear threat and the lack of trust in the Arabs. The left, in contrast, recruits the hope that peace will put an end to terror and will aid in the struggle against Iran and stem the rise of Hamas. The right brandishes the failure of negotiations with the pragmatic Palestinian camp and even portrays the Oslo accords as a strategic error. The left warns that ending the peace process will lead to a bi-national state, i.e., to fulfillment of the aims of hostile actors like Iran and Hamas.
One of the outstanding examples of this integration of our external and internal confrontations occurred during the 1996 election campaign. Moshe Yaalon, then IDF chief of intelligence, stated that Iran was encouraging the terrorist organizations to step up their activity in order to bring about a change in government in Israel. In other words, the enemies of peace in the region preferred a government led by the right that would restore the conflict to its pre-Oslo days. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu felt obliged to pledge publicly that a government under his leadership would maintain the peace process--albeit "its way". Another example is a recent media interview remark by Khaled Mishaal, head of the Hamas Political Bureau, to the effect that the growing strength of the Israeli right is welcome news and constituted one of the motives for Jordan to enter into talks with his organization.
Every Qassam rocket that lands on Sderot merely oils the wheels of the Israeli political right by presenting yet another instance of the failure of the left's approach. Labor party leader Ehud Barak persuaded large portions of the Israeli left and center that Yasser Arafat did not want to reach a territories-for-peace deal. The Hamas takeover of Gaza became "proof" that PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas also could not make good on such a deal. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni admitted on several occasions that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza strengthened Hamas and that it would have been preferable to hand over the keys to Abbas.
In order to make things right, in the course of the past year a kind of alliance has been formed between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Ehud Olmert grasped that the only chance of strengthening Abbas, who was once compared by PM Ariel Sharon to "a chick whose feathers have been plucked", and to stop the rise of Hamas, lay in activating the so-called "diplomatic horizon". Yet it's hard to present a "business as usual" image of negotiating on the eastern front at a time when on the southern front Israelis and Palestinians are buried deep in violent conflict.
The closer our elections loom the greater the interest of Kadima and Labor to restore calm to Sderot and reconstitute the ceasefire. Confronted with photos of dead civilians and wounded soldiers the Israeli public--70 percent of which, according to the latest survey by the Berl Katznelson Institute, have lost faith in peace--tends to look for solutions involving force. The Israeli government, in order to counter the slogans of the right, is obliged to display its determination by supplying photos of leaders from Hamas and other radical organizations who have been targeted and border crossings that have been closed. Hamas can hardly sit idly by. Thus the circle of violence expands and the creaky wheels of peace are rolled back.
Hamas left peace negotiations in the hands of the PLO on the assumption that the gap between Palestinian and Israeli demands could not be bridged. One year after Annapolis, Hamas' gamble appears to have been justified. The "economic peace" that Netanyahu promises the Palestinians instead of negotiations does not come anywhere near answering the expectations of Fateh, which has championed the two-state solution. But Netanyahu's solution is likely to be welcomed by Hamas PM Ismail Haniyeh. Since winning the Palestinian parliamentary elections in February 2006, Hamas has repeatedly offered Israel both a ceasefire and a cessation of the peace process in return for de facto cooperation in matters of daily life.- Published 1/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Akiva Eldar is a senior columnist and editorial writer at Haaretz daily newspaper. He is coauthor of "Lords of the land: the war over Israel's settlements".
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.