The past ten days or so have witnessed a flurry of both diplomatic and military activity touching on Israel-Hamas relations. Drawing on Hamas concessions, Egypt appears to have made progress toward instituting a six-month pause or ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in and around the Gaza Strip. Meetings in Egypt and Syria between former US president Jimmy Carter and Hamas leaders added a measure of controversy. Meanwhile Hamas has continued to target the Gaza-Israel passages through which vital infrastructure and food supplies are delivered to Gaza.
There are still major unresolved issues in the ceasefire talks. Israel insists Hamas commit to preventing any and all aggression from Gaza, including by Islamic Jihad and other non-Hamas combatants. Hamas wants the passages (the very ones it attacks) opened and the economic boycott ended. It has apparently withdrawn its demand that the ceasefire be applied immediately to the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip, but insists that after six months of quiet Israel accept this condition as well.
In judging the pros and cons of the Gaza ceasefire package, the Olmert government has to address a number of broad issues touching on Israel's relationship with Gaza and Hamas.
First, the real significance of the Carter talks and the initiative taken by Shas Minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry Eli Yishai to directly discuss a prisoner exchange with Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal (which Mishaal rejected) is to signal a degree of erosion in the overall boycott of Hamas by Israel and the Quartet. We can expect to see additional international personalities meeting with senior Hamas leaders and a greater likelihood of some sort of preliminary diplomatic contacts with Hamas. Carter is seen by most Israelis as naive and willfully ignorant of their security needs. But the one statement he made on this trip that resonated with them was that someone has to talk to their enemies.
Second, Hamas' capacity to deal positively with Israel is weakened by what appear to be serious schisms within the movement's leadership. Mishaal's refusal to meet with Yishai was consistent with Hamas' general rejection of meetings with Israelis and further hurt Mishaal's image as a leader Israel could conceivably do business with.
Third, Israel's abstention from a strong reaction to Hamas's abortive Pesach-day attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing reflected not only a desire to maintain a degree of tranquility over the Pesach holiday. Sixtieth independence day celebrations, a visit by US President George W. Bush and the fragility of the Israel-PLO peace process are additional factors mitigating against military escalation in Gaza. But by late May only the peace process constraint will be left, and the likelihood of a major Israeli incursion into Gaza will increase proportionately. Hamas is aware of this. Fear of a major Israeli offensive may explain why it has apparently dropped its demand that a short-term ceasefire prohibit IDF operations in the West Bank as well as Gaza.
Fourth, judging by Hamas' persistent attacks on the Israel-Gaza passages and the tightening of Israel's economic siege that they are seemingly intended to provoke, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the "victim" image of impoverished Palestinians in Gaza serves Hamas' overall strategic objective. Israel should take note. In any event, it should long ago have concluded that depriving ordinary Gazans of essential infrastructure and food supplies is counter-productive to its interests.
Finally, a ceasefire should facilitate Cairo's efforts to broker an Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange that repatriates IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
But the Israel-Gaza ceasefire initiative presents Jerusalem with a set of broader regional considerations as well. For one, a Gaza ceasefire (or, for that matter, a military escalation) will affect the status of the Israel-PLO peace talks in general and the status of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in particular. The latter has just walked away from a White House meeting where he declared he had failed to persuade President Bush to pressure Israel for concessions. That meeting was symptomatic of the relative absence of an effective American imprint on the current course of Israel's relations with the Palestinians, whether PLO or Hamas.
Most Palestinians and Israelis are united in arguing that the peace talks are going nowhere. A Gaza ceasefire could free the hand of PM Ehud Olmert to start removing West Bank outposts and advancing the talks. But alternatively, the ceasefire could boost Hamas' prestige in the West Bank as well as Gaza, thereby further weakening Abbas. Into these calculations we must factor the prospect that Hamas will agree to the Gaza passages being reopened under the auspices of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.
Then too, Hamas in Gaza has over the past year or so become a major factor in Israeli-Egyptian relations. Cairo, in the twilight of the Mubarak regime, is wary of the link between Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but fears becoming over-involved in Gaza and has for years been trying to facilitate Hamas-PLO relations. Hamas' violent breach of the Rafah crossing a few months ago represented a low-point in the Egypt-Hamas relationship. An Egyptian-mediated ceasefire between Israel and Hamas could improve those relations and at least temporarily stabilize the region.
The clock is ticking on the Israel-Hamas status quo of low-level warfare. The next month should produce either a ceasefire or an Israeli-initiated escalation. Either one could further weaken Abbas and the peace process--unless Olmert gets serious about settlements and outposts in the West Bank.- Published 28/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Jimmy Carter's visit to the region and his meetings with several parties including Hamas officials coincided with serious Egyptian efforts to try to forge a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. The former US president's meetings with the Syrian leadership and Hamas were controversial in the United States, however, and he was brutally criticized in Israel. Only in Palestine were his efforts welcomed by the full political spectrum.
Among other things, Carter's meetings brought attention to the fact that the official American strategy of excluding and boycotting Hamas while supporting its domestic rival Fateh has been a failure. On a practical level, meanwhile, the most interesting outcome of Carter's meetings with Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal were the direct and indirect messages from Hamas to the international community, according to which Hamas is willing to behave with political maturity, contrary to the impressions created by Israel and Israel's supporters.
Mishaal promised Carter Hamas would support and accept any political agreement Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert if it was put successfully to a popular referendum. That position is compatible with the position of Abbas, who has consistently responded to criticism that he will not be able to deliver his people to such an agreement by saying that Palestinians will get to vote on it and their verdict should be binding on everyone.
With Mishaal's words, Hamas has shown willingness to abide by the democratic rules, particularly by being willing to live with an agreement it might not like because it enjoys the support of the majority of the public.
Carter's meetings with Hamas and their outcome have shown up the contradictory nature of the American and Israeli position to shun Hamas and discourage all others to do the same. The argument used is that dealings with Hamas strengthen the movement and grant it legitimacy at the expense of the Fateh leadership.
But Israeli behavior in the West Bank and Washington's resoundingly silent response have already done exactly that. By preventing negotiations from even touching the substantive aspects of the conflict and continuing the practices that consolidate the occupation, including expanding settlements and fragmenting the Palestinian territories, Israel is causing a systematic decline in the public standing and credibility of Abbas and his camp.
The latest poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center bears out this continuing decline in support for the peace camp and the peace process, and a corresponding increase in the support for radical views and violent resistance.
In parallel to Carter's efforts, meanwhile, Cairo has been trying to mediate a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that includes the Gaza crossings and prisoners as well as an end to violence in and around Gaza.
To this end, Hamas made a concession that was criticized by all other factions, especially its closest ally Islamic Jihad. That concession was also rooted in Hamas officials' meetings with Carter and forms yet another indication that Hamas is willing to give and take if dealt with seriously. The concession was a willingness to allow the ceasefire to begin in Gaza alone. The previous insistence by Hamas to include the West Bank was thus dropped.
Given the lessons from the different approaches to dealing with the complicated situation since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, it is clear that the most successful is that combining the promise of a possible end to occupation through political and peaceful negotiations with inclusive dialogue, primarily among the Palestinian factions. The inclusive approach encourages the pragmatic elements in Hamas and thus promises to be the most fruitful if it is accompanied by a serious process toward ending the occupation.- Published 28/4/2008 © 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
by Amnon Lord
The controversy over the recent visit by former US president Jimmy Carter and the negotiations he ostensibly held with the heads of Hamas and the Syrian leadership can be divided into two aspects. One is pragmatic and pseudo-diplomatic; the other involves the principle behind Carter's intervention and what it represents.
Contacts and negotiations between Israel and the diverse actors of the Arab world have in recent years taken place against the backdrop of America's unwanted involvement in regional diplomacy. The United States continues to provide strategic backing for the state of Israel. And it leads the war against terrorism as well as the diplomatic and--in future--perhaps military effort against the Iranian nuclear program. But in everything concerning the political processes likely to lead to agreements and perhaps even peace between Israel and the Palestinians or Syria, the Americans are not really wanted.
There has now evolved an independent and fairly pragmatic regional framework for managing Israel-Arab relations. There is an important Israeli-Palestinian track in Qatar; as concerns contacts with the Palestinians, whether Hamas or the PLO, Israel prefers Egypt's good offices. To the north, Turkey is mediating with Syria. It is into this system, which one day will generate a positive dynamic and agreements, that Carter has burst so crudely. We can say confidently that he will fight against Israel to the last drop of Palestinian blood. He is totally oblivious to the substance and depth of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy of what is in fact a civil war. He identifies Hamas, Syria's current leaders and Iran as anti-Israel and anti-US actors and in the name of peace and dialogue hastens to offer them legitimacy, thereby sabotaging the existing infrastructure of negotiations described above.
Carter's behavior reminds us of the complaint of the dissidents advocating democracy in the Soviet Union at the peak of the cold war. They argued against all those well-known intellectuals who legitimized the oppressive Soviet regime, praised it as the epitome of progress and, during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, demanded that the USSR join North Vietnam and the Vietcong in their war against the US. Put differently, that was when Jean Paul Sartre and friends recommended world war III and instead got the Six-Day War.
Thus, real advocates of democracy and peace in Palestinian society, Lebanon and Syria cannot rejoice over the help that is ostensibly arriving in the person of the former American leader; indeed, they can feel betrayed by him. Carter has over the years hastened to extend a hand, a friendly hug and the gift of legitimacy to every sorry dictator. He made a pilgrimage to Fidel Castro in Havana and created the illusion of compromise and agreement over the nuclear issue vis-a-vis the communist dictatorship in Pyongyang. Last week, he rounded off this humiliating performance in his contacts with Khaled Mishaal.
These days, as the world becomes aware of the truth about the supposedly diplomatic solution reached with North Korea regarding its nuclear project, there is something symbolic in Carter's emergence at the geographic center of nuclear attention. It turns out, according to the CIA's report to a US Senate committee, that North Korea deceived the West and effectively transferred its nuclear efforts to Syria. That apparently explains the "mysterious" operation of September 6, 2007.
Carter's mediation efforts and, unfortunately, those of Egypt as well, must be understood in terms of Hamas' war strategy in Gaza. The facts on the ground point to continuous attrition along the borders of the Strip, particularly focusing on the border crossings. Some among us ask with astonishment why the Palestinians attack the very border passages through which moves the aid that sustains Palestinian society in Gaza. This offers horrible testimony to the Somalization taking place there.
Those who suffer immediately are the Palestinians; Israel has no interest in this dire development whereby a terrorist revolutionary leadership is fighting by means of weapons of starvation and neglect of the population. From Israel's standpoint, the war is about sovereignty and control on its border.
Former President Carter is not helping Gazans. He is helping the Hamas leadership survive every time IDF operations threaten it with extinction.- Published 28/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Amnon Lord is editor-in-chief of the newspaper Makor Rishon.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
The Carter factor
by Mustafa Abu Sway
Former US president Jimmy Carter's most recent trip to the Middle East generated much debate, especially because he met with Khaled Mishaal, Hamas' political bureau chief, in Damascus. Carter's reputation and the high profile nature of the visit, which included visits with neighboring heads of states, could only signal another important recognition of Hamas as a major political player in the region. This is in line with the rising political power of political Islamic movements across the region.
While Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, must have been listening carefully to what Carter had to say, he did not meet with him. Carter had already become persona non grata in many Zionist quarters because of his book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid". In the book Carter asserted that, "Israel's continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land. In order to perpetuate the occupation, Israeli forces have deprived their unwilling subjects of basic human rights. No objective person could personally observe existing conditions in the West Bank and dispute these statements."
In his book, Carter is also critical of some Palestinian behavior. Yet despite this, and his status as a Nobel laureate and his role in the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, he was accused of being anti-Semitic for labeling the occupation as "apartheid". That opinion is not shared by all Israelis. Former minister Yossi Sarid reacted last week to the labeling of Carter as anti-Semitic with an article in Haaretz confirming Carter's thesis entitled, "Yes, it is apartheid".
Carter was also opposed to the war on Iraq. His position was premised on basic religious principles and respect for international law. The war on Iraq could not meet the conditions for a "just war" as a Christian theological concept. According to Carter, this position was universal among Christians except for a "few spokesmen of the Southern Baptist Convention who are greatly influenced by their commitment to Israel based on eschatological, or final days, theology". In addition, Carter is against military action against Iran and advocates maximum political engagement, a position that runs contrary to Israel's belligerent policy vis-a-vis states building nuclear capabilities in the region.
Carter was highly critical of those who rejected Hamas' victory in the fair and democratic Palestinian general elections. Monitors from his Carter Center observed the 2006 elections in which Hamas won a majority of parliamentary (i.e., Palestinian Legislative Council) seats. He believed that this should have entitled Hamas to lead the Palestinian people. He called on western governments not to favor Fateh over Hamas as this deepens the conflict between the rival Palestinian factions. One could make a passing mention of the Vanity Fair magazine report on US support for elements in Fateh before Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 that attests to this favoritism.
The result was disastrous.
Today, the Palestinian Authority, which is essentially Fateh, and Hamas negatively mirror each other in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including a daily barrage of ad hominem attacks aired on their respective TV stations. The main difference is that in the West Bank, while still suffering under Israeli occupation, the Palestinian Authority, at this stage in its history, is treated by Israel with kid gloves. The Gaza Strip, on the other hand, is hermetically sealed, with humanitarian aid brought virtually to a standstill by the lack of fuel supply, which is controlled and sold by Israel. Israel controls the movement of goods and people to the Gaza Strip. Carter himself was not allowed to enter, and he could only meet Hamas leaders from the Gaza Strip in Egypt. It is not clear what Israel gains from this kind of treatment of Carter.
The appalling conditions in the Gaza Strip must weigh heavily on the nature of the ceasefire under discussion nowadays. While in Egypt, Mahmoud Zahar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, confirmed the movement's approval of calm (tahdiyeh) in the Gaza Strip for six months during which a ceasefire should be extended to the West Bank. This is in exchange for easing the restrictions on the Gaza Strip by opening the crossings.
The fact that Hamas agreed to the Gaza-first ceasefire could be considered a concession. Mishaal stated that Hamas' position is a response to an Egyptian proposal. He also said that Hamas would agree to a de facto two-state solution, without recognizing Israel. There continue to be no direct channels of communication between Israel and Hamas. According to Carter, his visit took place precisely because of this lack of communication, which he considers counterproductive.
The Israeli government reacted publicly by rejecting the ceasefire, saying that Hamas is not serious. But it seems that Hamas has become more politically savvy: the movement did not consider the public Israeli reaction as the final word on the ceasefire, preferring to wait for the Israeli government's formal response to the Egyptian mediators.- Published 28/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway teaches at al-Quds University.
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