The evidence has been accumulating in recent days that the broad outlines of a ceasefire are falling into place on both the Lebanon and Gaza fronts. This development reflects first and foremost Israeli military achievements in diminishing Hizballah's and Hamas' fighting capacities. True, the katyushas and Qassams continue to fall on the Israeli civilian rear, the heavy civilian deaths at Qana in southern Lebanon are delaying ceasefire efforts and Israel is confronting its own military shortcomings. Nevertheless, ceasefires appear to be near.
In Lebanon the picture seems clearer, if only because Hizballah is a disciplined organization with a unified command; the only actors that might disrupt progress toward a ceasefire that Hizballah is interested in are Iran and Syria. Also in Lebanon, the ceasefire would presumably be reached between two sovereign governments, in Beirut and Jerusalem, and would be backed up by the international community in the form of a UN Security Council resolution and an international force designed to compensate for the weakness of Lebanon's governing institutions and army. Under current circumstances, it is ironic to note that in Lebanon Israel has to deal with "only" one militant Islamist organization and one government.
The picture in Gaza appears to be much murkier. There we are talking about the renewal of a unilateral ceasefire agreed among Palestinian factions and not directly between them and Israel, with the latter being asked to cease its attacks only in the next phase. In the Gaza reality, which is more anarchic than southern Lebanon, it is sufficient for a single small militant faction to reject the ceasefire in order to sabotage it before it sees the light of day. In this way, Islamic Jihad and elements of the Aqsa brigades, which originated in Fateh, have at Iran's behest apparently been sabotaging ceasefire efforts that are acceptable to most if not all of the Hamas leadership.
Those efforts center on the release of kidnapped Corporal Gilead Shalit and a Palestinian cessation of hostile acts, followed by an Israeli cessation, and accompanied by Israeli release of detained Hamas parliamentarians and politicians and a commitment to release women, minors and veteran prisoners to President Mahmoud Abbas rather than to the Hamas PA government. Another aspect of the internal Palestinian agreement would be the appointment of a new government based on both Hamas and Fateh, thereby presumably opening up channels of direct financial aid that have hitherto been frozen. Egypt is once again the primary third party mediator in these efforts. One clearly positive dimension of the current movement toward a Palestinian ceasefire is that it reflects the desire of both Israel and nearly all the Palestinians to separate the Gaza conflict from that in southern Lebanon. Another is that the international media's relative neglect of the Gaza front in favor of Lebanon has deprived Hamas of knee-jerk world sympathy for the "underdog".
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the Palestinian effort to stabilize the situation in Gaza is that, at least as far as Israel's involvement is concerned, it is spearheaded not by Hamas but by Abbas and Fateh circles, i.e., by the weaker actor among the Palestinians. The latter purport to know what Hamas is thinking and what it requires, and turn to Israel to make the necessary gestures with regard to aid and even weaponry for Abbas' presidential guard. Yet these more moderate Palestinians, who are desperate to return to even a modicum of power inside the PA, have over recent months demonstrated a poor understanding of what really makes the Islamist Hamas tick.
They have also predicated efforts to form a new post-ceasefire Palestinian coalition government on the prisoners' document, a problematic agreement that doesn't mention Israel or a two-state solution, reaffirms the right of return and sanctions violence in the occupied territories. That the moderate Abbas approves this document is troublesome, just as was his agreement back in March 2005 to the Cairo pact with Hamas, which features a particularly extreme version of the right of return. Fateh activists have reassured us that these are "internal" documents, needed to bring Hamas into the Palestinian political fold. But they also have the effect of obliging Fateh to acquiesce in more militant positions for the sake of unity.
Eventually, the current efforts will bring about a ceasefire in Gaza. But it is unlikely that this will quickly empower a moderate and responsible Palestinian government or pave the way to a renewed peace process. Nor can a Palestinian or Lebanese ceasefire remain stable as long as the government on the Arab side is institutionally weak and incapable of exercising effective sovereignty.
In parallel, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert will be hard put after this conflict--which began with the Arab violation of recognized borders to which Israel had withdrawn unilaterally--to restore the momentum for an additional unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Hence a ceasefire might usher in a period of dangerous stagnation on the Palestinian front.- Published 31/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
The total Israeli refusal to ensure the release of the captured Israeli soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon through a prisoner exchange reminds not only Palestinians but also Lebanese and Jordanians of the negative Israeli approach toward prisoners in general.
When Israel unilaterally withdrew from South Lebanon it was expected to also release Lebanese prisoners. But Ehud Barak, Israeli prime minister at that time, refused, and that decision was responsible for several Lebanese attempts to capture Israelis, dead or alive, in order to ensure the release of these prisoners. But even when such a balance was achieved, Israel insisted on keeping hold of a few prisoners, which justified further Lebanese attempts at more exchanges.
An even more extreme example of this irrational Israeli attitude and approach to prisoners is the case of Jordan, which has signed a final and comprehensive peace treaty with Israel and normalized relations to an extent that even Israel has no complaints. In spite of persistent diplomatic efforts by the government of Jordan and through third parties, Israel has refused to release Jordanian prisoners who to this day languish in Israeli prisons.
The Palestinian case is another example. The Oslo agreement stipulated the necessity of releasing Palestinian prisoners. This never happened. To make matters worse, on every single occasion that required gestures of the kind that would strengthen the Palestinian public's support for and belief in the peace process, and when the Palestinian leadership and third parties tried to convince Israel to release prisoners, successive Israeli governments refused to budge. Indeed, the opposite has happened. Israel has increased the frequency of its arrest campaigns and the number of prisoners it holds.
When Mahmoud Abbas was appointed prime minister, he tried to revive the peace process. That required injecting credibility back into the political process. To this end, he requested that Israel release prisoners. Israel refused. Israel refused again after Abbas was elected president.
It is a fact of life that the higher the number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons the greater the participation in the kind of activities that put many of those prisoners in jail in the first place, i.e., resisting the occupation. It should be noted here, however, that for those who have had direct experience of Israeli prison it is obvious that not less then half the prisoners are there for no logical reason, but rather simply out of suspicion, or for having expressed an intention or thought. It is also obvious that all those who go to prison--whether involved or not involved with political or religious organizations or in resistance against the occupation--prepare and train for resistance during imprisonment.
In other words, from the political to the practical, all indicators show that the Israeli policy on prisoners is backfiring and is being used by political, military and religious organizations to further strengthen and enhance their popularity rather than vice versa.
In addition, the nature and level of torture that prisoners are subjected to is multiplying the number of implacable enemies of Israel not only among those with first hand experience but also among their relatives and friends.
The oppression embodied in the large scale and widespread imprisonment of Palestinians together with ever more oppressive measure--including the confiscation of land, restrictions on movement, the demolishing and bombardment of homes and the indiscriminative assassinations of Palestinians including civilians--are responsible for maintaining the active rejection of and hostility and resistance to the Israeli occupation and Israel.- Published 31/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
From ceasefire to peace agreement
by Yossi Beilin
There is a theory that holds that in order to solve a difficult political problem you first need a hard crisis. It argues that without the Yom Kippur War of 1973 there would be no Israeli-Egyptian peace; without the first intifada the Oslo agreement would not have been signed; and so on.
I object to this approach, which is used, usually after the fact, to justify unnecessary wars. The assumption behind it is that we are so stupid that we'll never learn from history, and that we'll always have to spill a lot of blood before achieving normalization on this or that front. At the same time, if the hard crisis is in any event upon us I'll always seek to "exploit" it in the spirit of "now we really must do something", in order to bring about a settlement. This is precisely the situation in the Gaza Strip.
These days in particular, with the international community striving for a ceasefire in our region, it is important to separate the southern and northern fronts. There is no reason for Hizballah to become the patron of the Palestinians by sponsoring a comprehensive ceasefire. An agreement in the south should, in my opinion, come first.
It should comprise the following components: release of the soldier Gilead Shalit; cessation of all hostile activity (rocket firing, terrorism, and penetration of sovereign Israeli territory by tunneling and other means); cessation of Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip; cessation of Israeli artillery fire on the Strip; cessation of Israeli targeted assassinations; and ensuring the proper administration of the Gaza passages with Egypt in accordance with the agreement reached through the intervention of the US secretary of state. At a later stage, as these phases are implemented, Israel will release the Palestinian prisoners it intended to free in accordance with the understandings between PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas, and will cease to oppose the delivery of economic aid to the Palestinian Authority.
The signing of such an agreement is likely to produce additional benefits. Until a month ago, the Palestinians were engaged in internal discussions about setting up a national unity government based on the amended prisoners' document. The document itself is entirely for internal purposes and cannot form the basis of any sort of Israeli-Palestinian agreement. But it could now enable the establishment of a joint government, with Abbas remaining at the head and ministers from Fateh and other factions serving in it. Israel has an interest in the emergence of a new and significant point of contact with the Palestinians; under the changing circumstances, a Palestinian unity government could fulfill that function.
The next phase could be the opening of talks between Israel and the PLO regarding an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. If indeed Olmert is prepared to withdraw from 90 percent, it will be necessary to coordinate the security and civilian aspects of the pullout and to agree to treat it as implementation of phase II of the roadmap and as the third further redeployment that was stipulated in the 1995 interim agreement we never completely carried out. In parallel with withdrawal, or at the latest upon its completion, negotiations would begin over an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status agreement. The underlying principles of the agreement would be established at this point in accordance with President George W. Bush's "vision", the roadmap and additional principles, with the knowledge that the negotiations would be limited in time.
If and when these negotiations lead to agreement, both sides would seek its approval by popular referendum. In this way each side would know that its fellow signatory to the agreement represents the broad public rather than a passing government coalition. If one or both of the publics rejects the agreement it would become invalid. In this way, neither side would take upon itself uncalculated risks when the agreement is signed.
In the present constellation, when the prime minister of Israel is prepared to give up nearly all of the West Bank without any Palestinian quid pro quo and the leader of the Palestinian people is one of the most pragmatic persons among them and is identified with opposition to violent struggle, it would be a mistake of historic proportions not to grab the bull by the horns. It is time to make a serious effort to do something more courageous and more worthwhile than maintaining the status quo or carrying out another unilateral withdrawal, particularly when the risks of such a move have become increasingly obvious in recent weeks.- Published 31/7/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org
Member of Knesset Yossi Beilin is chair of the Meretz-Yahad party.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Complications of the tracks
by Ali Jarbawi
As well as being a thorny and complicated issue, prisoners and detainees enjoy a special status in Palestinian society and consciousness. Throughout the long years of occupation, more than a quarter of a million Palestinians have sampled the bitter experience of detention and arrest by the Israeli occupation army.
Today there are around 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including women and children. The issue is a bleeding wound in Palestinian society, and since Oslo, Palestinian negotiators have failed to secure any clear criteria for the release of groups of Palestinian prisoners and detainees according to a set timetable.
Instead, the Israeli government has maintained complete control over the issue. Sweeping arrest campaigns are ongoing and Israel even wants the Palestinian Authority's security apparatuses to do the same. When Israel has released detainees, it has done so according to its own criteria, and as a goodwill gesture rather then as part of a negotiations process. In addition, the detainees Israel did release were usually people who had served most of their time, those who were arrested for marginal reasons or common criminals.
The core of the issue revolves around those arrested for resisting the occupation. For them, Israel invented a new classification, "those with blood on their hands". These prisoners were excluded from any release process, even at the peak of detente in the political process. As a result, the issue has remained a prime cause of concern to the Palestinian street and a source of embarrassment for the PA and Palestinian negotiators.
Palestinians have gradually learnt from experience that for any serious process to release detainees to happen it must involve an exchange. This is what happened with the Popular Front/General Command and with Hizballah in the past when Israeli prisoners were released in exchange for Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab prisoners. Hence, the Palestinian street is totally persuaded that any serious release of Palestinian prisoners requires capturing Israeli prisoners to exchange.
When Hamas entered the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, it ran on a program and performance different from what prevailed in the Palestinian arena. Hamas' program is predicated on "change and reform" of the Palestinian track, especially in relation to the means of dealing with the Israeli occupation, whether as regards negotiations or prisoners. A total siege was imposed on the government formed by Hamas, including an end to international financial assistance, when the government and Hamas refused to yield to Israeli demands that were also adopted by the international community.
Hamas found itself facing a serious crisis that threatened its ouster. The movement tried to break the siege in various peaceful ways but failed, and the only option left was escalation. Hamas sent signals that it would attempt to abduct Israeli soldiers, and, in cooperation with other Palestinian factions, succeeded in doing so in a unique operation against an Israeli military target.
The military wings of the factions involved considered the operation a change in the balance of power in their favor. They honored the promise they made to the relatives of Palestinian prisoners in a manner different and more effective than the promises that have been made by Palestinian negotiators who have consistently failed in this mission.
The Palestinian side demanded a prisoner exchange deal, but Israel refused and instead launched an attack against the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Pressure started to come from the Israelis, as well as international and even Arab parties stressing the urgent need to resolve this crisis and release the Israeli soldier. A proposal was floated to conduct a prisoner exchange that was staggered, whereby the Israeli prisoner of war would be released first and in exchange a number of Palestinian prisoners would be released at a later stage as a goodwill gesture toward Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who acted as mediator. The number of Palestinian prisoners to be released was left unstated as was the kind of prisoners. The date of release was not set. The proposal was rejected by the Palestinian side and the Israeli aggression escalated in return.
When Hizballah captured another two Israeli soldiers, Palestinian morale, within the government, on the street as well as among prisoners and their relatives, was boosted. Expectations that a deal would now be possible rose. The experience of Hizballah added a practical dimension. The message was that Palestinians were not alone and there is actual support from outside the borders that is more than simple statements of solidarity.
But Israel launched an open and insane war on Lebanon, encouraged by a US administration that found in the recent events a golden opportunity to forcefully rearrange the conditions in the region and settle scores with the "evil" axis that opposes its policies, including Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas. Fearing for their status and interests in the region, Arab countries came out very clearly against support of Hizballah, which was blamed for "an adventure" that could start a regional war.
As the military pressure increased on all of Lebanon and as political pressure mounted on Hizballah internally and externally, a Lebanese proposal came from Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and a close ally to Hizballah, which commissioned him to launch the initiative. The offer was to conclude a deal for the release of the two Israeli soldiers in exchange for the release only of Lebanese prisoners as part of an integrated scheme to end the Lebanese-Israeli crisis.
This contradicted the expectations of all popular Palestinian parties, who were counting on the linkage between the Palestinian and Lebanese tracks, at least in relation to a prisoner exchange deal. The Lebanese proposal did support the position of President Mahmoud Abbas, who from the beginning stressed the need to separate the tracks because the Palestinian situation is unique and different from the conditions in Lebanon. Abbas has insisted on the necessity of releasing a number of Palestinian prisoners even if in a process that is staggered.
If the Lebanese position on separation between the Palestinian and Lebanese tracks on the prisoners file remains unchanged, and this appears likely, Palestinian hopes for a release of a significant number of Palestinian prisoners will fade quickly. The only offer will be the initial one of a staggered exchange, and that, in turn, relies entirely on Israeli promises.
Before that situation obtains, the factions holding the Israeli soldier are likely to stall on giving Abbas a free hand regarding the soldier's release until the results of the war on Lebanon become clear and, in particular, until Hizballah's position is clear. If a prisoner exchange deal takes place between Lebanon and Israel, the Palestinian parties can then demand a similar exchange for Palestinian prisoners. All now depends on how the Lebanese-Israeli crisis ends, and everybody is waiting.- Published 31/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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