There are enough reasons to believe that the current escalation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza will continue. There are also reasons to believe that the two sides are pursuing both short- and long-term political objectives for such an escalation.
Separating Gaza from the West Bank, both de facto and de jure, is one component of the unilateral Israeli strategy that started with the withdrawal from Gaza. Israel hopes thereby, among other things, to undermine Palestinian aspirations to establish a state in all the occupied Palestinian territory that includes the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
This plan, however, was interrupted by Hamas' victory in parliamentary elections in 2006 and then further by the movement's military takeover of Gaza in 2007. Israel could not allow Gaza under Hamas control to be opened to the world through Egypt, because that would not only increase Hamas' chances of survival but also allow the Islamist movement to grow in both political and military strength. Hence, Israel modified its strategy and decided to impose a full closure on the impoverished strip to suffocate Hamas as well as the people of Gaza.
It was a very shortsighted tactic. Instead of prompting resistance to Hamas control, Israel's draconian closure on Gaza only prompted greater sympathy for the movement and Gazans in general from the Arab public and internationally. The pressure it created on life in Gaza finally culminated in the very public breach of the Gaza-Egypt border in January that was seen in most quarters as a clear victory for Hamas. This in turn has now forced another Israeli rethink, hence Israel is now escalating the situation in Gaza in preparation for implementing a military solution to its problem of Hamas control there.
But Hamas, in turn, also cannot live with the status quo created by Israel and the international community under which it has been confined to Gaza and has not been able to live up to the basic expectations its people have of it and of any Palestinian leadership. The January 23 breach of the border with Egypt was an attempt by the movement to relieve the pressure on it and Gaza in general.
This too was a short-term victory. Egypt could not accept that one of its sovereign borders was forced open and insisted that the border be resealed and only opened again under the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Having succeeded only for a short while to open the border, Hamas then decided that a military escalation, by responding strongly to Israeli attacks, would provide a reasonable way out of the impasse.
With both sides pursuing escalation, a major confrontation seems all but inevitable. There is much speculation about the exact scope and nature of such a confrontation and the level of resistance it will be met with, but a major Israeli incursion and possibly an attempt at fully re-occupying the Gaza Strip would seem likely.
Israeli objectives for the current escalation range from crushing Hamas and ending its control over the Gaza Strip to deterring any further rocket strikes across the border. Hamas too has a range of objectives. First, the movement seeks to be perceived as the main Palestinian force fighting the Israeli occupation and this way to establish itself as the counterpart to Israel on the Palestinian side. This is also an important domestic objective in light of the fact that Palestinians have been fighting this illegal Israeli occupation for the past 41 years, whatever the nature of their leadership.
But another Hamas objective is to avoid a major confrontation by convincing Israel that getting rid of the movement is impossible no matter how much force Israel uses. Hence, for Israel to end the rocket attacks it has to reach an understanding with Hamas. Hamas has consistently called for a ceasefire as an alternative to the ongoing escalation. Its ceasefire proposal, when looked at carefully, is not very different from the interim arrangements that the PLO leadership has been trying to reach with Israel. Hamas is proposing ending hostilities between the two sides in return for an end to Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza and an end to all settlement expansions. The only difference is that Hamas does not want this to be an official agreement but rather an understanding. Furthermore, Hamas does not want to pursue an end-of-all-claims agreement but rather a ceasefire for a limited but significant period of time that, depending on which version one reads, ranges between 15 and 30 years.
Hamas has been inspired by Hizballah. Hizballah has been able to reach some kind of military balance with Israel that convinced Israel to leave the movement alone in return for an end to the katyusha attacks. Hamas is trying to reach a similar balance of deterrence, and while there is a huge military difference in the comparative strengths of Hizballah and Hamas, one factor stands out: If Israel wants to crush Hamas, the price will include a full and comprehensive re-occupation of the Gaza Strip, of which Israel already has very long and bitter experience.
The only alternative to these two scenarios--a full confrontation or a ceasefire--is if Israel decides to return to deal with the Palestinians as one central body and territory. This will require ending the international and Israeli opposition to the resumption of the intra-Palestinian dialogue that could be mediated by Arab governments, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to bring back an arrangement similar to that of the 2007 Mecca agreement . The Mecca agreement installed a national unity government that was rapidly moving toward accepting the relevant stipulations of international legality and the pursuit of a final agreement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.- Published 18/2/2008 © bitterlemons.org
It's no coincidence that tensions between Israel and both Hizballah and Hamas are escalating. Israel confronts these militant Islamist movements on two of its borders. Their activities are closely linked to Iran's aggressive drive to expand its regional influence and Syria's role as henchman.
Yet there are three key differences between these organizations that are relevant to Israel's dealings with them. First, one is Shi'ite Muslim, the other Sunni. This determines important variations in their relationship with the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, with the Shi'ite Hizballah more closely linked to Iran and the Sunni Hamas more likely to be influenced by the rest of the Sunni Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Second, Hizballah is more inclined to expand its struggle beyond the borders of Israel, whereas Hamas has never done so. Hizballah attacks worldwide are particularly likely now, in the aftermath of the Imad Mughniyeh assassination in Damascus and in view of Hassan Nasrallah's explicit threats to that effect.
And third, Hizballah refuses to negotiate political issues with Israel. It agrees to discuss prisoner exchange via third parties, but nothing more. It is also part of a state, Lebanon, with which Israel has on occasion had direct dealings, and Hizballah itself no longer shares a border with Israel. Important leaders within Hamas, on the other hand, periodically advertise their willingness to discuss a ceasefire with Israel, whether short-term (tahdiyeh) or long-term (hudna)--in addition to prisoner-exchange talks via a third party, Egypt, that parallel those with Hizballah. Hamas is also in control of a finite, state-like territory, the Gaza Strip, that borders directly on Israel.
These differences between Hizballah and Hamas point to the possibility of an Israel-Hamas political dialogue. But the remaining circumstances do not, for one because Israel's negotiations over a final status peace agreement with the more moderate Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership would be prejudiced by the advent of parallel ceasefire talks with Hamas. The latter would ostensibly present Palestinians with an alternative and "cheaper" model of coexistence with Israel.
Then too, Hamas does not speak with one voice: there is no clear and authoritative interlocutor in Gaza or Damascus with whom Israel or Arab mediators in Cairo and Riyadh can deal. And finally, the Hamas version of a ceasefire, to the extent it has been transmitted to us, is problematic. Hamas apparently attaches to a long-term hudna the same demands regarding borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc., that the PLO makes in return for genuine peace. Meanwhile, either a hudna or a tahdiyeh almost certainly leaves the Palestinian Islamist movement free to continue its armed buildup in Gaza and to maintain its ideological demand that (eventually) Israel cease to exist--thereby merely postponing an armed confrontation until such time as Hamas and its allies feel better prepared.
Today we confront a newly fluid situation in Gaza created by the recent Hamas breach of the border with Egypt and the PA demand to take over all Gaza border crossings in coordination with Israel, Egypt, Hamas and the EU. This has given fresh impetus in some circles to the option of talking to Hamas about a new modus vivendi. At the same time, the new situation is itself a product of the escalating military encounter between Hamas and Israel and the latter's growing reliance on both economic sanctions and targeted assassinations of senior terrorists in Gaza.
These tactics, plainly unsuccessful in deterring rocket attacks on southern Israel, fall somewhere between the more clear-cut options of talking to Hamas and reoccupying large parts of the Gaza Strip. That may be one reason why Israelis are losing patience after seven years of Hamas rocket attacks: witness the new political activism of the residents of Sderot, demonstrating against the government in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Here we come full circle back to the Hizballah link. If Israel now chooses to escalate its military offensive against Hamas and reoccupy parts of the Strip, it must take into account the possibility that Hizballah will again launch a rocket war against Israel from Lebanon. This would reflect not only Iranian and Syrian-inspired solidarity with Hamas and not only a way for Hizballah to escape the Lebanese domestic crisis it helped create. It would also be an expression of revenge for the Mughniyeh assassination that Hizballah insists Israel perpetrated.
We're left with good reasons neither to talk to Hamas nor to reoccupy the Gaza Strip. Yet something has to give. Remember Eli Wallach in "The good, the bad and the ugly"? "If you wanna shoot, shoot; don't talk". We still haven't decided.- Published 18/2/2008 © 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
Israel can't crush Hamas
an interview with Abu Mohammad
bitterlemons: There is increasing talk in Israel of a major Israeli military incursion into Gaza. Does Hamas believe such an incursion is likely and what steps is the military wing taking to prepare?
Abu Mohammad: We believe that the Israeli occupation will continue its escalation against the Palestinian people by invading Palestinian cities and areas. But we don't believe Israel will undertake a comprehensive invasion of Gaza.
We also believe that Israel could, in a few hours, reoccupy the Gaza Strip. Israel's real challenge will come after such an occupation. Gaza is the center of resistance and Israel should remember how little it enjoyed occupying the Strip before. In every street and home Israeli soldiers will find death waiting for them.
As for specific tactics I will not go into detail other than that Israel can expect several surprises. In addition, I can confirm that any such major invasion will not end the rocket fire.
bitterlemons: Israel says that any such incursion will aim to end Hamas control over Gaza. Is this a scenario Hamas fears? Is Hamas capable of withstanding a major Israeli attack?
Abu Mohammad: Israel can't crush Hamas or end its control over Gaza simply because Hamas represents more than half the Palestinian people. Accordingly, crushing Hamas means crushing half the Palestinian people. Also, Hamas is not afraid of the Israelis. In the past, we were under direct Israeli occupation, an occupation Israel eventually fled from in Gaza. Since Hamas' founding, Israel has struck at it again and again, in 1988, 1989, 1992, 1994 and 1996. Today, we hold a majority in parliament and form the government. Every strike at Hamas only makes the movement stronger and increases its solidarity and support from the Arab and Muslim worlds.
bitterlemons: Hamas has repeatedly stated that it is ready for a ceasefire (tahdiyeh) with Israel. What conditions would Israel need to adhere to for such a ceasefire to take hold, and is Hamas ready to enforce a ceasefire on all factions?
Abu Mohammad: Our political leadership has stipulated three conditions for a ceasefire. Once Israel accepts them, then we are ready to implement a ceasefire. First, Israel must stop its incursions and arrest campaigns. Second, Israel must end the siege it has imposed on Palestinians. Third, Israel must stop assassinating Palestinian leaders and activists. In case Israel accepts these conditions, all the Palestinian factions will be committed to the ceasefire because these are their conditions as well.
bitterlemons: Is Hamas willing to negotiate directly with Israel to reach a ceasefire?
Abu Mohammad: As our political leadership has announced, there can be no direct negotiations with Israel though an understanding can be reached through a third party.
bitterlemons: There has been growing criticism from some quarters, including the West Bank PA and Egypt, that the rocket fire from Gaza serves no purpose. What is your response to such criticism? Does the rocket fire not simply offer Israel an excuse to make life even harder for Gazans?
Abu Mohammad: The criticism itself is irresponsible. Those who level the criticism are those who have surrendered their options by surrendering to the occupation and receiving their orders from Israel. There are no rockets in the West Bank, yet hundreds of checkpoints continue to make life there miserable and Israel invades West Bank cities at will, assassinating and arresting people. The rocket fire is simply our resistance to occupation, a reaction to Israeli aggression in defense of our lives. What else should an occupied people do?
And furthermore, why do they keep criticizing our homemade rockets and not mention the Israeli F16s or Apache helicopters? Let the Europeans and the Americans stop arming the Israelis with the weapons they use to kill our children and women.- Published 18/2/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Abu Mohammed, a nom de guerre, is a Hamas military leader in the northern Gaza Strip.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
A Hamas-Israel agreed ceasefire now
by Gershon Baskin
The war in the south rages on with increased rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and escalated Israeli responses. The Hamas and Jihad leadership in Gaza has gone underground in fear that Israel will resume its policy of targeted killings against them. At the same time, Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa and Palestinian journalist Khaled Amayreh have worked out a "draft agreement" for a ceasefire that Amayreh claims has the backing of the Hamas leadership, including Khaled Meshaal.
I spoke with Hamas leaders in Gaza and received verification that if Israel would support the agreement, Hamas would declare its support as well. Hamas leaders have also agreed to the idea of involving the Egyptians in negotiations if Israel wishes to make changes in the draft agreement. The agreement includes a call for a full ceasefire between Israel and all of the factions in Gaza. The document explicitly states that attacks against all Israelis will cease.
During the past several months I conducted a series of talks with several Hamas leaders in Gaza who approached me to advocate a ceasefire agreement with the government of Israel. I told those Hamas leaders that I would not take such a step unless they could deliver a Hamas guarantee that all of the factions in Gaza would adhere to the ceasefire. I proposed that they either undertake a commitment to impose the ceasefire on all factions or alternatively that they secure the agreement of all of them to sign on. I was informed that at least five meetings with the leaders of all factions took place in the home of PM Ismail Haniyeh, but until recently neither agreement of all of the factions was received nor was there a clear decision by Hamas to impose the ceasefire.
Following the issuing of the draft ceasefire agreement by Froman and Amayreh, several Hamas leaders in Gaza told me that they were willing to accept all of the terms of the draft and to make sure that all of the factions in Gaza adhere to it as well. I suggested that a formal statement be issued by Haniyeh in Gaza and by Khaled Meshaal in Damascus. Such a formal statement has not yet been issued.
As opposed to what I believed prior to the breach of the Rafah border, today I support the acceptance of this "draft agreement" and believe that it may be the best strategic option for all parties. I would recommend that trilateral consultations between the government of Israel, the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank and Egypt be conducted to reach consensus on accepting the terms of this draft agreement. I would advise that Egypt mediate in the process of formalizing acceptance of the draft or in making agreed changes to it.
My support for the new ceasefire is based on the following reasons:
- The present policy of pressure and strangulation of Gaza in order to weaken Hamas has backfired; Hamas is stronger now than prior to implementation of the policy.
- The complete and total closure of Gaza has not at all prevented the importation into Gaza of weapons and explosives and entry of personae non-gratae.
- The situation in Sderot and in other Israeli communities around Gaza is intolerable. The rocket fire must stop and there appears to be no clear military strategy for dealing with it.
- The life of the civilian population in Gaza is intolerable and inhumane. Thus, the collective punishment of that population should be ceased.
- A large-scale military operation into Gaza is too risky, too dangerous, too costly--politically, militarily, economically and in human lives--and will most likely only cause an escalation in the West Bank, perhaps the fall of the
Abbas regime and the introduction and growth of forces even more extreme in the Gaza Strip.
- The best way to ensure the continuation of the peace process and the negotiations is by arriving at a situation whereby there is quiet in the south.
The issue of what to do about Gaza is complex, and there are no good options at hand. Every possible decision has its negative consequences and pitfalls that may in fact worsen the situation. Whatever strategic choices are made at this time, it is paramount that all parties keep in focus the primary common strategic objectives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority: to proceed and succeed in the renewed peace process and create the political and security possibilities for Gaza to be included. All policy decisions taken must keep these primary strategic objectives in focus.
It is therefore of the utmost urgency that de-escalation of forces and tensions takes place on both sides of the Gaza border. The government of Israel and the PA in Ramallah should enter into direct consultations on the emerging situation on the ground. The Hamas political and military leadership in Gaza and Damascus should halt all military activities against Israel and allow for a period of calm to return so that all parties can reconsider their strategic options. The government of Israel should respond to any Hamas de-escalation by de-escalating in parallel its attacks against Gaza. These steps should be completed by bilateral acceptance of a formal ceasefire that could be based on the Froman-Amayreh document.- Published 18/2/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI - the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
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