The approach of the Israeli government and security establishment toward a negotiated ceasefire in and around Gaza reflects the tension between two opposing assessments. The result is the absence of a coherent strategy.
One assessment broadly reads Hamas as essentially an intractable militant Islamist organization that can never come to terms with Israel and live alongside it peaceably. If it can't be weakened and manipulated through the threat of force and by enhancing its rival for power, Fateh, it will have to be confronted militarily.
The other assessment holds that ultimately Hamas is a political movement that comprises both extremist and moderate schools of thought and that can be motivated through negotiation to adapt its world view to emerging realities and accept modified and limited achievements. This view compares Hamas of today to Fateh of 30 years ago; just as prolonged contact and negotiations with Israelis mitigated Fateh's original absolute demand for Israel's demise, so too Hamas can be brought around to a more constructive role. Hamas, in this assessment, is far more a creature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than an outpost of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine or, worse, a Sunni Muslim proxy of Shi'ite Islamic revolutionary Iran.
The first school of thought views a ceasefire as, at best, a tactical pause before major conflict. The second sees it as the possible beginning of constructive interaction.
The strategies regarding Hamas that emerge from both assessments are problematic. Can Hamas, a grassroots movement, be decisively "defeated" militarily? Can it even somehow be brought to its knees through economic and diplomatic boycott? Certainly this latter strategy has failed thus far.
On the other hand, when Israeli-PLO contacts began years ago, not just Fateh but Israel too modified its views--to the extent of accepting a two-state solution. In contrast, Israel has no apparent new concession to offer Hamas in exchange for modifying its absolute denial of Israel's right to exist. Moreover, Fateh of Yasser Arafat was essentially a secular liberation movement in the third world tradition of the day, whereas Hamas is thoroughly Islamist in nature and shuns direct contact with Israelis; comparisons between the political evolution of the two movements are risky.
Both of these approaches have strong roots within the Israeli political and security establishments. Their relative influence is affected by a host of more immediate issues. These include the course of peace negotiations with the PLO alongside Israeli-Egyptian relations as seen against the backdrop of the gradual decline of the Mubarak regime. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert's troubles at home and their effect on his freedom of maneuver vis-a-vis both the Palestinians and his political rivals are another factor, as is the high profile of the Gilad Shalit case among the Israeli public. Finally, the attitude toward Hamas of the international community, led by the US, is critical for Israel's ultimate decision.
At the end of the day, the Olmert government has not resolved the contradiction between the approaches and does not appear to have a cohesive strategy regarding Gaza and Hamas. Hence the zigzag nature of Israel's approach. At one and the same time it is negotiating indirectly through Egypt's good offices while threatening (and occasionally carrying out, on a limited basis) a tougher military response. The government prays that its own civilian losses won't escalate, yet offers Israelis living near Gaza only limited resources to improve their civil defenses. It fiddles with the quantities of essential goods allowed into the Strip while ignoring the prolonged failure of economic boycotts and incentives to alter Palestinian behavior. And it criticizes Egypt's failure to stop the flow of smuggled ordnance under the Sinai-Gaza border, yet without overly straining Egyptian-Israeli relations.
How long can this go on? On the one hand, it is hard to imagine an all-out Israeli military effort aimed at wiping out Hamas in Gaza unless and until the Israeli public comes to terms with two seemingly inevitable outcomes: the prospect of hundreds of Israeli civilian and military losses, and reoccupation of all or a major part of the Strip without the benefit of a viable exit strategy, i.e., in the absence of any respectable Palestinian, Egyptian or international actor that is prepared to take re-conquered Gaza off our hands and prevent it from again exporting terrorism. Such a contingency does not appear realistic today. But it could become so in the not too distant future if the threat projected by Iran and its allies grows, if Egypt comes under hostile rule, if the PLO collapses in the West Bank or if Hamas escalates its attacks on Israelis.
On the other hand, any ceasefire negotiated with Hamas is bound to be temporary and to serve as a prelude to reliance on greater force unless ways can be found to modify Hamas' behavior and bring it into productive contact with Israel. This too is, at least for now, a doubtful proposition.
Egyptian efforts to secure a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in Gaza are continuing, but the different parties' interests and their definition of what a ceasefire should constitute are throwing obstacles in the way.
Egypt simply wants a ceasefire. However, one of the issues that has to be settled is that of movement through Rafah, which is very problematic for Cairo. For one thing, opening Rafah while keeping almost all other crossings closed means that the Israeli strategy of handing responsibility for Gaza to Egypt is working. Secondly, such a situation will create certain domestic problems for Egypt, particularly by facilitating relations between Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
The other problematic issue for Egypt is the Israeli position of holding Egypt responsible for what happens at the Gaza-Egypt border. Cairo might like to remind Israel that when the Israeli army was in charge of the border, neither Israel nor Egypt managed to stem weapons smuggling there.
Meanwhile, both Israel and Hamas are negotiating under the impression that the other side is in greater need of a ceasefire. It is for this reason that a ceasefire is not all either side is calling for.
Hamas is in a complicated position vis-a-vis any ceasefire. On the one hand, Hamas wants the Palestinian public and the Arab public at large to consider the Islamist movement as the counterpart to Israel, especially on the military level. Such an image consolidates an impression about its leadership position within Palestinian society and its claim to be the party controlling any Israeli-Palestinian dealings after the current military confrontation.
At the same time, Gaza has suffered immensely as a result of the ongoing confrontation. Hamas' standing in Gaza thus needs calm. Hamas is trying to find a balance between striving for a ceasefire and consolidating its role as the leader of the resistance. As a result, Hamas needs to achieve something more than simply a ceasefire with Israel. At first, this included the demand that the ceasefire extend to the West Bank. Now it includes the demand that the Rafah crossing be opened with immediate effect.
Israel also feels it needs more than simply a cessation of hostilities. Thus, the Israeli government is trying to add the release of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, to its conditions for calm. At the same time, and for domestic political reasons, Israel will not accept the kind of prisoner exchange that Hamas is proposing.
This complicates the issue, since Hamas has justified holding on to Shalit as the only way to secure a significant prisoner exchange. Should Hamas now agree to a watered-down prisoner exchange, the movement will find it difficult to explain to Gazans why it did not agree to such a deal before, thus sparing Gazans many military incursions.
In addition, there is a feeling within Hamas in Gaza that keeping Shalit is a measure of protection against a massive Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. The captured soldier also offers Hamas the prize of direct contacts with all kinds of governments, personalities and institutions that are trying to negotiate his release.
In spite of the fact that a ceasefire in Gaza stands to benefit all parties, the chances of reaching a ceasefire, even with Egyptian mediation, are minimal. Israel-Gaza relations cannot be separated from Israeli-Palestinian relations generally nor from the many political and military components of the conflict.
It would be more constructive if Israel-Gaza relations, including on a ceasefire, were dealt with as part of overall Palestinian-Israeli relations. This, however, would require ending the Palestinian-Palestinian rift and the current domestic Israeli political crisis, which has left the current Israeli government unable to deliver on anything.- Published 9/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org 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 believes it has the upper hand
by Shaul Arieli
The policy of "throwing away the keys" that characterized the IDF withdrawal and removal of settlements from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 played right into Hamas' hands as it sought to achieve political and social objectives based on a strategy of "armed struggle" and non-recognition of Israel.
In the absence of a significant peace process and against the backdrop of Fateh's failure to maintain an effective ruling authority and sound government, Hamas defeated Fateh in parliamentary elections, formed a Palestinian Authority government and rounded out its victory with a military takeover of the Gaza Strip. Israel responded by galvanizing an international consensus in favor of boycotting Hamas and recognizing the Fayyad government. It followed through politically with the goal of bringing about the collapse of Hamas rule in Gaza and constraining its military expansion and the threat it projects to the surrounding towns and kibbutzim. Hence it limited and even ceased the passage of goods into the Strip and encouraged reinforcement of the Egyptian military deployment along the philadelphi strip in order to prevent smuggling.
This is the political backdrop to the Israel-Hamas military struggle. Israel is deploying its military in a series of operations defined by two basic political assumptions. In view of the cost involved and particularly considering the absence of an actor, new or old, to whom it can transfer responsibility, it is avoiding full reoccupation of the Strip. But it is also avoiding accepting a ceasefire along the conditions proffered by Hamas. This reflects its fear of aggrandizing Hamas' prestige and of facilitating Hamas' military growth, stabilization of its rule in Gaza, enhancement of its status in the West Bank and damage to Fateh's status--to the extent of the latter's collapse and cancellation of the international boycott of Hamas rule.
This operational policy has for the past two years nourished an asymmetrical struggle. Israel launches daily attacks against armed personnel inside Gaza, bringing about hundreds of casualties every month at a minimal cost to itself. And Hamas strikes at Israeli civilian population concentrations in the Gaza region with rockets and mortars--for which Israel still lacks an effective defensive or offensive response.
The Egyptian-mediated negotiations over a ceasefire are drawn-out because of the different ways the two sides approach their objectives. Hamas sees a ceasefire first and foremost as a way of removing the boycott; it is prepared to reciprocate with delayed implementation in the West Bank. Israel seeks to begin with a mutual ceasefire and wants to prioritize and delay for as long as possible an ending of the Gaza siege and a ceasefire with Hamas in the West Bank. Israel, which enjoys the military advantage, wants to integrate release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit into the deal and pay in return the lowest possible price in released Palestinian prisoners.
Until agreement is reached, if at all, both sides continue to pursue the military track in an attempt to augment ceasefire conditions. Occasionally they even violate their shared informal "understandings" regarding the use of force: Hamas, by firing Grad rockets at Ashkelon and Netivot inside Israel; the IDF, by launching broader and deeper ground operations than usual.
Recent political and domestic developments are also relevant to ceasefire conditions:
- The "Talansky affair" is understood by the Palestinian public as putting paid to President Mahmoud Abbas' promise to deliver an agreement for the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. This failure removes the most significant threat mounted against Hamas, which feared the ceasefire would be exploited by Israel and Fateh to present the Palestinian public with an agreement. It even strengthens Hamas' policy of negotiating under fire--a policy increasingly preferred by Fateh activists and by the general public too, as an unavoidable tool for negotiating not just a Gaza ceasefire but peace as well.
- The electoral campaign anticipated in Israel in the coming months is liable to cause most Israeli political parties to adopt more extreme positions, thereby feeding into Hamas' internal-Palestinian propaganda campaigns.
- The most recent visit to Tehran by Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal, held against the backdrop of the Syrian-Israeli announcement regarding renewal of negotiations, produced an increase of Iranian aid to Hamas to total $250 million a year and a commitment to supply enhanced weaponry.
- With recent statements by Fateh activists in mind, Hamas has of late concentrated on trying to bring about Qatari involvement in mediating between the two movements. PM Ismail Haniyeh visited the offices of the Qatari representative in Gaza, while senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar held a similar meeting in Doha. This gambit has media and psychological importance in view of the successful Qatari mediation among Lebanese factions that finalized Hizballah's victory over its rivals in Beirut. Similarly, Qatari involvement is likely to mean a Hamas-Fateh dialogue that favors Hamas and to offer a way for Hamas to counter the views of Egypt, which seeks to maintain exclusivity in mediating between both Hamas and Israel and Hamas and the PA leadership.
Given these developments, Hamas is ironically prepared to relax its conditions and agree to a "test of intentions" before Israel opens the Gaza passages. It assesses that current and anticipated conditions--the absence of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the weakening of Fateh, a new American president, Iran's stronger position--will enable it to enjoy the "fruits" of a ceasefire more than Israel, until the ceasefire can in any case be improved upon. Israel for its part is still delaying its response, against the backdrop of new political tensions between the minister of defense and the prime minister.- Published 9/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Shaul Arieli is former commander of the northern brigade in the Gaza Strip and headed the Negotiations Management Center under PM Ehud Barak. He is a senior research associate at the Economic Research Foundation and serves on the executive committee of the Council for Peace and Security.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
National unity could aid ceasefire efforts
by Ahmed Yousef
Will there be a major incursion or a ceasefire in Gaza? That is the question Palestinians are asking themselves at the moment.
On the Palestinian side, all the political and military factions have decided to accept a cease fire (tahdiyeh) if the Israeli government halts all its acts of aggression and allows all passages to Gaza, including the Rafah crossing, to reopen. Palestinians consider the ceasefire a national consensus and are awaiting an Israeli answer through the Egyptian mediator.
Until now, however, Israel is delaying its response and instead reports of a massive military operation against the Gaza Strip are gaining currency. It raises the question of whether Israel is really serious about a ceasefire or is just working on widening the rift between Palestinians.
Hamas (the government and the movement) has done much on the ceasefire issue in response to Arab and European requests. Hamas wants to see an end to the killings and invasions of Gaza by the Israeli Occupation Forces, as well as an end to Israel's justifications for its aggression. Having met their commitments, Palestinians are now waiting for the Rafah crossing to open.
On the Israeli side, however, the potential for a ceasefire is low due to the domestic problems of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. Cairo still awaits Israel's answer and for as long as Israel prevaricates international pressure must be brought to bear on the country because the alternative to a ceasefire may be a bloody confrontation. This, in turn, could spill over into the region.
Meanwhile, the prospects for national reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh have improved following last week's speech by President Mahmoud Abbas, which was welcomed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Only through national unity can Palestinians face the occupation and defeat the siege imposed on us all.
The most appropriate step that should follow these positive statements from both sides is the engagement of the Arab League to help break the siege and reopen the Rafah crossing to facilitate the movement of Palestinians to and from Gaza and bring in much-needed humanitarian and medical aid.
The proposed issues to be discussed in any internal dialogue are as follows:
- Forming a government of national unity that could contribute to ending the siege and the political isolation. This requires flexibility from both sides and priority to national interests over factional interests.
- Rebuilding the Palestinian security apparatuses on the basis of proficiency. In this context there is no objection to bringing experts from Egypt or Turkey to achieve this.
- Committing to reform of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in order that it properly represents all Palestinians, both inside and outside the homeland.
- Respecting the results of the presidential and parliamentary elections and reinforcing the principles of democracy, power sharing and the peaceful transfer of authority.
- Committing to open the subject of early elections once national reconciliation and stability have been achieved.
PM Haniyeh has been in close contact with a number of Arab leaders in recent days to support national reconciliation. These efforts emphasize that Hamas is serious about ending the rift with the brothers in Fateh and wants to expedite reconciliation in order to focus on the Israeli occupation and not allow Israel to exploit the opportunity to put facts on the ground and thus cause hopes for establishing a Palestinian state to fade.
It is clear that the US can't be an honest broker in this conflict. The US is Israel's ally, and this Israeli government is only buying time to build more settlements and strengthen its hold on Jerusalem. It is from this understanding that Palestinians must decide their position on the so-called peace process. We must also understand that this conflict requires the help of the Arab and Islamic world.
A united Palestinian stance, moreover, will also likely convince Israel to accept the ceasefire. Hence, the national unity dialogue must commence directly. This is the demand not only of the Palestinian people, but of Arabs and Muslims generally.
The coming weeks will be significant. In order that something positive may be generated, it is necessary to stop all incitement from all sides.- Published 9/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Ahmed Yousef is political adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Gaza.
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