The issue of a ceasefire is best understood in the light of the general rule that as long as there is oppressive and violent occupation there will always be resistance, including violent resistance. Once that is understood, it should be equally clear that the only way to reduce or end violent confrontations is through a political process that at the very least promises an end to this occupation.
The argument is easily illustrated by casting an eye back over the last 40 years of this belligerent and illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The only period of relative calm during that time was between 1996-2000, during the "healthy" years of the Oslo-inspired peace process.
These years gave Palestinians a reason to believe that the occupation was coming to an end. As a result, Palestinians were ready to give this process a chance and instead focus on issues such as state and institution building.
It is no coincidence that the collapse of negotiations at Camp David was followed by an outbreak of confrontations and violence between the two sides.
The period after the election of Hamas also witnessed a relative reduction in violence, at least from the Palestinian side. Israel undertook two extremely punishing and deadly raids into the Gaza Strip, one in June and one in October, leading to over a hundred Palestinian deaths, including many children and innocent bystanders. Nevertheless, a Gaza truce was agreed in November last year. Under the terms of this unwritten agreement, Hamas accepted to end its violent activities from the Strip if Israel ended its violent attacks on the Strip. But violence in the West Bank was excluded from the agreement.
That defect carried with it its eventual failure. The West Bank and Gaza are not separate entities. They are the home to the same people under the same conditions, fighting the same struggle and led by the same political parties and factions. The exclusion of the West Bank was wholly artificial. Thus, when Israel dramatically escalated its violence in different areas of the West Bank last week, killing nine Palestinian in less than 24 hours, the factions in Gaza, including Hamas, announced an end to the truce.
That is not to say a ceasefire is bound to fail. But for any such end to violence to be sustainable, two conditions must obtain. First, any ceasefire has to be comprehensive and include both the West Bank and Gaza. But second, and more importantly, any ceasefire must come in the context of a political initiative that addresses the root cause of the violence, which is of course the occupation.
On a related note, Hamas has, by its willingness and ability to implement a ceasefire, sent a message to the world that it can be a counterpart to Israel not only in military confrontations but also in ending the violence and possibly in a political process. Hamas also implicitly told the international community that it was ready to abide by at least one of the Quartet's conditions, namely ending the violence.
Hamas' willingness to send those signals again underscores the argument that ceasefires need political contexts. If a political context is either not created or is created and then ignored, ceasefires will only ever be lulls in fighting during which the parties take the opportunity to re-arm and prepare for yet another round of violence.- Published 30/4/2007 © bitterlemons.org
If the pause, or ceasefire, between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza has not yet officially ended, it appears to be merely a matter of time before it does. The buildup of armed forces in Gaza by Hamas and other militants has the Israeli security community on edge. It is like the legendary pistol that appears in act I of a Chekhov play; by act III someone will fire it.
Hamas, emulating Hizballah and with support from that organization and its Iranian patron, has smuggled tons of explosives under the Gaza-Sinai border, along with long range rockets and sophisticated anti-tank weapons. It is also constructing heavy fortifications. Israel is determined not to stand idly by while this goes on, as it did for years concerning southern Lebanon. Hence at this point in time an Israeli land incursion of some sort into Gaza seems inevitable. PM Ehud Olmert's government announced on April 25 that for the time being it would not respond to Hamas' provocative Independence Day barrage against Israel. But this reflects short-term internal Israeli considerations--mainly anticipation of the Winograd report--more than grand strategic calculations.
These developments mask a nuanced reality that bears examination if we are ever to extricate ourselves from the circle of violence. For one, all Hamas forces do not appear to be sewn from one cloth. Part of the political wing, led by PM Ismail Haniyeh, purports to support the ceasefire in order to reinforce the new unity government, while the military wing seems bent on sabotaging that government by escalating attacks against Israel. Political or military, the Palestinian Islamist movement's version of the causes for the deterioration of conditions in Gaza blames Israel exclusively for Palestinian misery, happily ignoring the role played by its own terrorism and rejectionism and feeding the escalation of tensions.
On the other hand, Hamas described its independence day barrage not as a provocation but as a response to the IDF's killing of nine Palestinians--some innocent, some unarmed--in the course of anti-terrorist operations in the West Bank scarcely a day earlier. Hamas and Islamic Jihad argue that the ceasefire applies to the West Bank as well, while Israel rejects that claim--a position confirmed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas--as long as the Palestinians prove incapable of enforcing the "pause" even in Gaza.
This returns us to Hamas' exploitation of the ceasefire to arm and fortify itself in Gaza, a charge Hamas does not deny. Belligerents usually exploit ceasefires in order to rearm and redeploy; Israel, too, has done so. Israel is also abetting the plan of America's General Keith Dayton to train and arm Fateh's Presidential Guard and to strengthen the office of PA National Security Adviser Muhammad Dahlan as a counter to Hamas in Gaza. This is hardly reassuring news for the Hamas leadership, even though there is nothing to indicate that the retrained Fateh force will be any more efficient as a security unit than its predecessor, Force 17.
At the heart of this scheme is the notion that Hamas' election victory of January 2006, facilitated by the US, can be reversed and the two-state oriented Fateh restored to a position of power. It is a doubtful proposition; it could make matters worse by bringing about the ultimate collapse of the PA.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia spearheaded the efforts to form a Palestinian unity government and now claims that it has maneuvered Hamas onto the path of eventually accepting a two-state solution. This effort, too, warrants skepticism in view of Hamas' militant Islamist nature. Still, a renewal of full-scale Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in and around the Gaza Strip will surely be seen as a setback for this cause, and could damage prospects for cooperation between Israel and the Arab League under the umbrella of the recently re-ratified Arab peace initiative. Nor will it really put a stop to terrorism from Gaza for any length of time. And it could involve heavy Israeli losses.
At the end of the day, a ceasefire will never amount to more than a lull in the fighting unless the belligerents find a way to talk. Yet Hamas refuses to talk to Israel, even informally, while Olmert and the international community insist on a set of preconditions for formal contacts that, however logical and reasonable, are unacceptable even to Hamas' politicians, not to mention its terrorists.
We are on a collision course. There are no easy choices here. The only actors that could conceivably prevent or significantly delay yet another major armed clash in and around Gaza are the Saudis--if indeed they have acquired genuine leverage over Hamas--and Israel's politicians, to the extent the Winograd report plunges the country into a prolonged political crisis.- Published 30/4/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is the Israeli coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
No truce with nothing in return
an interview with Mahmoud Zahar
bitterlemons: Hamas' military wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, recently said it considered the truce over. Why now?
Zahar: The Israelis are escalating the situation. Every day the Israeli army enters the West Bank and kills innocent people, destroys houses and practices all kinds of violence against the Palestinian people. The same is happening in Gaza.
Since March 2005 we have agreed to several ceasefires, but the Israelis want ceasefires for free. They want a truce that maintains their security but gives nothing in return, certainly not the security and safety of Palestinians. If you count the number of people killed by Israel recently and add to that the devastation and destruction wrought by the Israeli army, it is clear why the truce had to end now. The Israeli violence is not acceptable and the Palestinian people must do something to defend themselves.
bitterlemons: How can an end to the Gaza truce benefit the Palestinian people?
Zahar: If a truce is in the interest of the Palestinian people, there should be a truce. That has happened in the past. But if a truce doesn't further Palestinian interests, if a truce does not end the Israeli aggression against Palestinians, we should look for other means to achieve our interests. Activating the resistance to confront the Israeli aggression is one way to defend Palestinian interests.
bitterlemons: There appears to be some disagreement over ending the truce between Hamas members in the government and the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades. Are splits appearing within Hamas?
Zahar: There has, for decades now, been much wishful thinking on behalf of our enemies about splits and divisions within Hamas. But the situation is this. The government has its political program and the Palestinian resistance factions have theirs. And the two are separate. The government is interested in maintaining the calm in order to rebuild what the Israeli occupation has destroyed and to bring security to the people. The resistance is a program of defense against aggression.
bitterlemons: There appears to be stalemate on all political fronts, whether with Israel or with the international community regarding sanctions against the Palestinian government. What is the way forward?
Zahar: We face two options, either to surrender and renounce our rights or to be steadfast. In the Palestinian experience, renouncing some of our rights, like the right to resist, has failed to bring us even a minimum of our national rights. So we are required to be steadfast and find political and financial alternatives.
There were never any political proposals that met the minimum of Palestinian demands. The best example is Oslo, where Israel was the only party to benefit, particularly by winning more and more time to continue its colonization of Palestinian land and the judaization of Jerusalem. We need to distinguish between political projects that are of benefit to us and those without substance.
bitterlemons: What can Hamas itself do to convince the international community to lift sanctions?
Zahar: Hamas is not interested in implementing the Quartet conditions. Doing so would simply be a repeat of the experience of previous authorities, which, as we know, have done nothing for us. Hamas is not about to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Hamas is interested in finding and exploring alternatives. Hamas has been talking about the Arab and Islamic depth of the Palestinian cause for some time now, and we have already achieved significant progress in this respect, particularly vis-a-vis financial and political support.
bitterlemons: If there is no change on the political front and the truce ends, can the unity government survive?
Zahar: I think the unity government will survive because the previous Hamas-led government faced even more difficult conditions and survived. Under the previous government, the Israelis destroyed everything, bridges, the power station and other infrastructure. Several ministers were arrested and there were assassination attempts as well but the government withstood it all.
In addition, the internal Israeli situation is in disarray, with corruption allegations embroiling the president, the prime minister and several ministers. There is also a change in the position of Arab and Islamic governments, while the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that the Zionist project in the Muslim world is failing.- Published 30/4/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Mahmoud Zahar is a senior leader in Hamas and a former Palestinian Authority foreign minister.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The Lebanon precedent mitigates caution
by Amos Harel
It all began with Arkadi Gaidamak. Last November the Russian Jewish oligarch succeeded, apparently unintentionally, to impose a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip.
After an unusually large Hamas rocket barrage on Sderot, Gaidamak responded to the outcry of the residents of that battered town and organized a mass vacation for them in Eilat. PM Ehud Olmert panicked. A few months earlier the government of Israel had confronted severe public criticism for not taking adequate steps to protect the residents of the Galilee during the second Lebanon war. The impromptu vacation village that Gaidamak set up in the center of the country last summer welcomed thousands of instant refugees from the north. Olmert, fearing a repeat performance, accepted the PA's offer of a tahdiya (pause) along the Gaza border. What the rockets didn't produce, the billionaire did. Hamas gave its pledge to PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to cease firing Qassam rockets. Israel committed its forces along the border to observe a total ceasefire--even if it identified Palestinians preparing to fire rockets.
Actually, this total ceasefire was not observed for even a day. Palestinian organizations led by Islamic Jihad continued to fire rockets toward the western Negev region. Hamas and Fateh did nothing to stop the firing; in many cases, Hamas' military wing supplied rockets to the smaller groups that continued firing. Some of these organizations rejected any pause with Israel as a matter of principle. Others cited the fact that the IDF was continuing its operations in the West Bank, every week killing "wanted" Palestinians, both armed and unarmed. They viewed their rocket attacks as a suitable response to Israel's aggression in the West Bank.
Israel's policy of restraint in Gaza also began to erode. While the IDF avoided artillery fire and massive deployment of tanks, it slowly renewed its use of aircraft to strike at Palestinian rocket squads. Beginning in April, the entry of ground forces to a depth of one km. inside the Strip was again permitted.
This gradual escalation, coupled with growing reservations within the Hamas military wing concerning the Mecca agreement and the unity government with Fateh, impelled Hamas too to step up its armed activity. During the past month it renewed sharpshooter, explosive charge and rocket attacks along the border. Israeli political and military circles are increasingly warning that Gaza is about to become a "second Lebanon", and that if Israel does not grasp this reality and preempt by launching a major land incursion into the Strip, it will confront a threat in the South (rockets, explosive charge and anti-tank weapons) reminiscent of the arsenal Hizballah deployed in the North last summer. It is no secret that the IDF has been actively training for several months for precisely this contingency: standing army and reserve units have simulated a variety of scenarios of sharp escalation in Gaza.
So are we once again looking at a self-fulfilling prediction? Not necessarily--and here again the reasoning is "Lebanese". Israel may indeed have concluded from the precedent of its summer confrontation with Hizballah that it must not again acquiesce in a growing threat of terrorism against its territory. But by the same token, its government and military decision-makers recognize the dangers involved in a broad operation in Gaza. Olmert, having been burned badly in the Lebanon war and now under the shadow of the Winograd Commission's verdict regarding the hasty judgment he displayed last July, is in no hurry to repeat the adventure in the Strip.
In the interim, too, he has learned a few things about the limitations of IDF force. The Israeli public is not convinced that the Qassam nuisance justifies endangering the lives of hundreds of soldiers in an extended operation. Nor is the international community likely this time to show so much understanding for Israel's offensive measures.
Above all, there is the fear lest a major military operation not produce any real change in the situation. Anarchy reigns inside Gaza. While it could be argued that a decisive Israeli land operation in southern Lebanon--had it been launched earlier--might have succeeded in establishing a new order there, the moment the IDF withdraws from Gaza the threat is likely to reappear. IDF Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi understands this well, and is not currently pressing for a major operation.
The conventional wisdom tells us that armies are always anxious to restore their sullied honor in a new battle. This does not for the moment appear to be the situation regarding Gaza. The only senior political and military officials currently advocating a major IDF offensive are Major General Yoav Galant, CO Southern Command, and Brigadier General Moshe (Chicko) Tamir, commander of the Gaza Division.
For now, they are clearly the minority--but only for now. The problem is that in Israel these decisions always reflect the impact of the most recent armed incident, and particularly the number of casualties involved. Everyone in the Israeli leadership, from Olmert to Galant, knows that escalation to war is merely a matter of a single deadly Qassam. If, God forbid, a rocket falls on a kindergarten in Sderot and massacres children, then a major military operation in the Strip is virtually inevitable.- Published 30/4/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Amos Harel is the military correspondent of Ha'aretz. He is the coauthor, together with Avi Isacharoff, of The Seventh War, a book about the second intifada.
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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.