Although the calm in Gaza did not last for more than a few days it marks a very significant development in the ongoing power struggle between Israel, Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
Israel has always avoided giving any impression that Hamas could be a counterpart for anything, whether peace or war. Hamas, in turn, has been willing to take all the necessary steps in order to appear, in the eyes of the Palestinian public and maybe the Arab public at large, as the only Palestinian party that is either fighting the atrocities of the occupation or representing the Palestinian side in any ceasefire.
The Palestinian Authority, for its part, worries about the possible development of any kind of interaction between Israel and Hamas, because that will affect not only its credibility, but also the legitimacy of the PA as the leadership of the Palestinian people and thus the proper counterpart in any arrangement with Israel.
Meanwhile, Israel has been careful to prevent any positive development in the relations between Hamas of Gaza and Fateh of the West Bank. The current split is very comfortable to Israel. With two different Palestinian counterparts, regardless of whether for peaceful or military purposes, Israel can preempt any progress toward a single independent Palestinian state on all occupied Palestinian territory.
The ceasefire may be the first of its kind. It was mediated by Egypt and hinted at by Israeli officials at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denied it. This double talk resulted from the fact that Israel needed the ceasefire but was embarrassed to admit it.
Hamas' "primitive homemade rockets" have proven a significant irritation to Israel, which faced two unacceptable possible scenarios. The first was to re-occupy Gaza, something Israel is trying to avoid because it has enough experience in Gaza and had enough reasons to leave. The second was to live with the rocket fire, which would be a domestic embarrassment for the current Israeli leadership. These possibilities seem to have forced Israel to go for a ceasefire, which in turn granted Hamas a sizeable victory and boosted its public position.
What aggravates the situation for the PA is that these developments in Israel-Hamas relations, fierce confrontations that ended in a ceasefire, came in parallel with the disastrous situation of the Annapolis negotiations. Israel is still refusing even to talk about final status issues and has meanwhile announced yet new tenders for construction in the illegal settlements of the West Bank. This is pulling the carpet from underneath the PA, rendering it further irrelevant.
If Israel by its behavior vis-a-vis Hamas--including the siege and the boycott, the bombardment and ceasefire--and its behavior vis-a-vis the PA in Ramalllah--including the continued settlement building, more checkpoints and its refusal to enter into any substantial negotiations--is trying to shift the balance of power within Palestinian society in favor of Hamas and against Fateh and the PA, then it is achieving its aim.
There have recently been some relatively clear statements against Israeli settlement expansion from both Europeans and Americans. This has made an impact on the Israeli leadership. If this is the beginning of a responsible international attitude, then that might create some hope. If it is simply paying lip service yet again, and these are words that will not be followed by any serious attempts to force Israeli compliance with the legal and political requirement of ending settlement construction, then the deterioration will continue as will its negative reflection on the region as a whole.- Published 17/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
The past two weeks witnessed a familiar pattern of events. Israel retaliated against Palestinian terrorists firing rockets from Gaza at Israeli civilians. This produced an escalation, in the course of which the city of Ashkelon with its 100,000 inhabitants was brought into the circle of hostile rocket fire. Israel responded with a modest ground and air operation that took a heavy toll in Palestinian lives, mainly Hamas combatants. Egypt intervened with a proposal for a tahdiya
, or pause in the fighting. Israel and Hamas, both wary of the wages of further escalation, appeared to signal their agreement.
PM Olmert denied that Israel had agreed to a pause; his cabinet had just issued a directive to the IDF to eliminate all rocket-firing capability from Gaza--an impossible task. Defense Minister Ehud Barak continued to talk of preparations for a massive attack on the Strip. But Olmert stated that Israel would not attack targets in Gaza if no attacks on Israel were launched from there--an exercise in doublespeak that, to most observers, signaled acceptance of the tahdiya proposal. Hamas, meanwhile, conditioned its acceptance on Israel refraining from attacking targets in the West Bank. The Egyptians were reportedly busy trying to turn the pause into a full-fledged and extended ceasefire or hudna. They sought to expand their mediation to include the long-standing Israel-Hamas prisoner-exchange talks as well as new arrangements for the Gaza passages that would integrate the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority leadership, at least symbolically, in their management.
From the Palestinian side, the ceasefire was never complete. With the exception of a few days, a trickle of rockets continued to be fired at Israel, including one that landed in Ashkelon shortly after Olmert visited the city. Israel avoided responding against targets in Gaza despite its assessment that Hamas is capable, if it so desires, of ceasing all attacks, without exception. Instead, Israel intercepted and killed four known Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists in Bethlehem in the West Bank. PIJ responded with rocket fire from Gaza that was tolerated by Hamas, and Israel in turn attacked PIJ targets there from the air. By the by, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem murdered eight young Jewish seminary students and both Hamas and Hizballah celebrated the event.
One can, of course, make the case that the attack on PIJ targets in the West Bank was not urgent and constituted a deliberate provocation on Israel's part, engineered by Barak to scuttle the Gaza pause. One can also argue that it would be wise for Israel to scale down its security activity, leave "retired" terrorists alone and remove unnecessary checkpoints in the West Bank as a step toward empowering the PA there led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. On the other hand, Israel has an obligation to eliminate known terrorists in an area where it has never in any way recognized a ceasefire.
As of the time of writing, renewed conflict in and around Gaza still only involved a trickle of Qassams, and some version of the tahdiya could yet be restored. Insofar as a major IDF assault on Gaza is an extremely risky and potentially costly operation, it certainly seems advisable to let Egypt try to develop a series of understandings between Israel and Hamas that could stabilize life in and around the Strip, particularly if the outcome does not weaken the PA in the West Bank.
But here lies the catch. The moment Hamas insists that a tahdiya extend to the West Bank as well, Israel has every reason to reject this demand, and the West Bank-based PA and neighboring Jordan have every reason to be suspicious. Yes, there are excesses in Israel's security profile in the West Bank: for one, the ongoing presence of settlements and outposts beyond the security fence is undoubtedly a major security-related problem that the Olmert government has not done nearly enough to alleviate. But the Hamas ceasefire demand regarding the West Bank must be understood as a blatant attempt to weaken Fateh, Israel's peace negotiating partner, and even to replace it as ruler of the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip.
Given the PA's difficulty in combating West Bank terrorists--it is only beginning to deal successfully with criminal (not terrorist) activity in some key areas--Israeli compliance with Hamas' demand to cease all efforts to intercept terrorists in the West Bank would have a double negative effect. In the short run, it would portray Hamas as the stronger and more effective representative of Palestinian needs and aspirations, thereby weakening Fateh and the PA. And in the long run, by allowing Hamas to operate freely in the West Bank, it would open the door to a Hamas takeover there.
If Hamas really wants peace and quiet in the Gaza Strip in order to get on with the job of governing and building an Islamic society there, it now knows that the Olmert government has enough good reasons, and senses sufficient public and international pressure, to agree. But in Gaza. Only in Gaza.- Published 17/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is 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 special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
No way to avoid Hamas
an interview with Ahmed Yousef
bitterlemons: Have there been any official or unofficial contacts between Hamas and Israel on a ceasefire?
Yousef: There have been no official contacts between Hamas and Israel. What has happened is that the Egyptians approached Hamas regarding a short ceasefire, to allow Cairo time to mediate an end to the embargo on Gaza, perhaps an opening of the gate to Egypt and maybe the other crossings into Israel. The calm is meant for a short period, but I hope it will open the door for a more comprehensive and reciprocal ceasefire.
bitterlemons: You say a short period. Is there a timeframe?
Yousef: We are talking about a week, ten days of calm, in the hope that this will lay the foundation for further Egyptian mediation. Right now Cairo is consulting with everybody regarding the terms for a ceasefire.
bitterlemons: There is no talk of any direct contacts?
bitterlemons: And what are Hamas' terms for a ceasefire?
Yousef: We have told Egypt that we want an end to all Israeli aggression--that means any military activities on the border, any incursions into Gaza or air strikes targeting the people or political and military leaders. We also want an end to the blockade and a lifting of sanctions.
bitterlemons: Should Israel agree, will this ceasefire extend to all groups or only Hamas?
Yousef: I think this will apply to all Palestinian military factions. Once Hamas and Islamic Jihad agree on the terms, I am sure the rest of the smaller groups will abide by the ceasefire. But this will be something the government, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will discuss with the groups.
bitterlemons: In the longer term, will this open the door for Hamas, in particular, and Israel to seek direct contact in the future?
Yousef: I believe this will open the door for Palestinians to talk to each other, i.e., for Fateh and Hamas to reconcile their differences in order to strengthen the internal Palestinian situation and to fix the power-sharing system. If we form a unity government, it will mean that when Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] continues his negotiations with Israel he will have greater support behind him and that will strengthen his position.
Hamas will not go and talk with Israel. From our experience of previous negotiations, Israel cannot be trusted to carry out its commitments. So we prefer that we fix our political system and let Abu Mazen continue negotiating, on the condition that he consults with Hamas regarding the terms of any possible document he seeks to sign with Israel.
All contacts between Hamas and Israel will have to go through a third party.
bitterlemons: You say that from past experience Israel cannot be trusted. Why, then, do you think Israel is interested in a ceasefire now and will remain committed to it?
Yousef: I believe Israel knows that if it continues its military incursions and attacks on Palestinian cities and towns, it will only provoke Hamas rocket fire and that Hamas is capable of extending the range of these rockets to strike major Israeli cities near Gaza, including Ashkelon and Ashdod. This will create serious domestic problems for [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert's government. A ceasefire can fix some of these problems.
I also believe that [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak has worked out that there is no easy incursion into Gaza. Any such incursion will be met by fierce resistance and retaliation in the West Bank and inside Israel. This is what happened in Jerusalem recently, when Israel's military attacks in Gaza provoked people in the West Bank and Jerusalem to take revenge.
Also Hamas itself will act to exact revenge. Hamas will not just accept a high number of casualties and women and children being killed.
Finally, perhaps, there may be, for the first time, a realization by the Americans and Abu Mazen that Hamas represents something and cannot be defeated. Hamas remains in control in Gaza and every day it is becoming stronger. The longer they wait for Hamas to collapse, the stronger it gets, whether in terms of public support or in terms of governance. In eight months we have not seen any collapse in the ability of Hamas to govern Gaza or any shortage of employees to run Gazan affairs.
Perhaps too Israel does not wish to provoke Arab leaders in the lead-up to the Damascus summit, forcing them to cancel the Arab initiative.
bitterlemons: Do you see signs that a unity government is back in the cards?
Yousef: There is a Yemeni initiative, and maybe Abu Mazen is serious about implementing this proposal. A Hamas delegation is due to go to Yemen to meet with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and express Hamas' reservations regarding certain terms in the Yemeni initiative. If this delegation is convinced, then I think a dialogue will start that could lay the basis for an initiative that the Arab summit will endorse or at least follow up on.- Published 17/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Ahmed Yousef is political adviser at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Gaza.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Another mistake in the march of folly
by Yaakov Amidror
A ceasefire with Hamas, if it happens, will be yet another link in a chain of events or march of folly that began with the Oslo accords and continued through the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
We brought Yasser Arafat here in 1993 because we were assured that a paradigm change had taken place. The Palestinians, we were told, were prepared to live in peace at our side and would prove it in their war against terrorism by extremists not subject to PLO control. What did we get? An arch-terrorist as the head of the Palestinian entity whom we allowed to introduce weapons into the territories and who, on the first day of his entry into Gaza brought with him, in violation of his agreement with the late PM Yitzhak Rabin, an additional terrorist hidden in his car.
Arafat fully exploited the naivete of Israeli decision-makers; the sad truth, which occasionally emerged in all its ugliness, was fully revealed in September 2000. Confronted with proposals for a complete withdrawal from Gaza and a nearly complete withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, and despite the active involvement of an American president friendly to the Palestinians, Arafat initiated a terrorist war that targeted the citizens of Israel. He was successful at murder: during one month in the spring of 2002 more than 130 Israelis were killed, most of them civilians.
Arafat did not hesitate to recruit Hamas for his war after refusing to combat that organization since being given jurisdiction in early 1994. Many among us and many of Arafat's people asked themselves why he didn't take action against Hamas: the answers we gave ourselves and received from his associates were not credible. In a lengthy conversation with Muhammad Dahlan in the course of a long night of negotiations--he accompanying Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and I the Israeli minister of defense--I understood that the Palestinian security services were doing nothing because Arafat had given clear instructions not to fight Hamas. In 2000, Arafat's real plan became clear beyond doubt: Feisal Husseini called it the emergence from the Trojan horse.
And then Arafat disappeared from the scene. He was replaced by Abu Mazen. Dressed in a suit and not a uniform, armed with a smile rather than a pistol but devoid of any charisma, decision-making ability or pragmatism, Abd Mazen has neither the desire nor the capacity to forego the Palestinian dreams of return, Jerusalem and a state that threatens Israel.
Shortly thereafter, with no link whatsoever to Israel's relationship with the Palestinians, the prime minister of Israel decided to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. The "experts" who supported the withdrawal, flaunting logic, assured us that the Egyptians would do the job for us and prevent the transfer of weaponry into Gaza. But they forgot to coordinate this with the Egyptians, who have done precious little since then. We were assured that if we were fired upon from Gaza, Israel would respond seriously and would enjoy full international support since we had delivered the Gaza Strip, down to the last inch, to the Palestinians. What possible complaints could there be against the state of Israel as it withdraws of its own free will, without asking anything in return, they asked.
The result was somewhat different. The wide-open border with Egypt allowed the trickle that had flowed through the tunnels under the border when it was secured by the IDF to become a raging river of weapons, ammunition and Iranian military experts. The Strip became a new model of Lebanon, with the world not agreeing that Israel cease to be responsible to supply Gaza's vital needs even as we were unable to implement our responsibility for the security of Israeli citizens. No wonder the Qassams fired at Sderot became a veritable downpour. Once again civilians became the targets of Palestinians who proved they have no moral compunctions.
A few months after Israel's withdrawal, the Palestinians held democratic elections and the people spoke. They chose between Fateh's corruption and Hamas' cruelty. No doubt, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza aided Hamas, which was now seen as having done the job of expelling the IDF. Thus it was not the Fateh activists in their villas who were seen as worthy of glory, but rather the religious fundamentalists. Some time later, Hamas became fed up with shared rule, murdered a number of its Fateh colleagues and took over exclusive rule in the Gazan quasi-state. The responsibility it now ostensibly held had no effect on its behavior: it continued to arm itself, shoot at Israel and threaten its towns and villages.
Finally, two weeks ago, following the firing of Katyusha rockets at Ashkelon--beyond the usual Qassam firings at Sderot--Israel, in an unusual step, got angry. It launched a small ground operation; in the course of four days, the IDF killed more than 100 Hamas fighters and, unfortunately, some 20 innocent civilians. Hamas understood that despite its lofty rhetoric and its leaders' arrogance a decision by the IDF to enter the Strip with a large force would erase all of Hamas' achievements in less than a week. No wonder Hamas is seeking a ceasefire with Egyptian help.
That is the situation as of today. It did not change when, following the killing of several Islamic Jihad terrorists in Bethlehem that organization responded with intensive rocket fire on Sderot and its environs. The key to the situation is held by Hamas, not Jihad. If Israel permits a ceasefire, this will be yet another mistake in the march of folly that began at Oslo. On the other hand, if Israel acts with full force, it will stop the decline that began with the 1993 agreements. The time has come to act.- Published 17/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror was head of the Assessment and Production Division of IDF Intelligence, military secretary to the minister of defense and head of the National Defense College. He is vice president of the Lander Institute, an academic center in Jerusalem.
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