b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    September 22, 2008 Edition 37                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Hamas-Israel relations
. Playing Palestinians off against each other        by Ghassan Khatib
Israel seems comfortable with Hamas' control over Gaza.
  . We need a better strategy        by Yossi Alpher
The use of an economic "stick" to influence the behavior of Gazans and their regime has proven fruitless.
. A precarious coexistence        by Ali Jarbawi
The search continues for a unifying leadership that places the goal of ending the occupation ahead of petty political ambitions.
  . Is Israel engaging Hamas?        by Shlomo Brom
What we see is a combination of Israeli steps that, taken together, do not make sense.

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Playing Palestinians off against each other
by Ghassan Khatib

In spite of their recent fierce confrontations and the continuing hostile rhetoric, there are apparently three levels of direct and indirect dealings between Israel and Hamas of Gaza. A ceasefire was reached and is still maintained, negotiations are taking place through third parties on a likely prisoners' exchange and the two sides are exchanging views over the possible opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

The most striking aspect of Hamas-Israel relations has been the success and duration of the ceasefire. It is worth noting, that since the resumption of violent confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians in 2000, this has been the most successful ceasefire to date. Based on that, the Israeli security establishment has already drawn its conclusions about the strength of Hamas and its willingness and ability to abide by its commitments.

Palestinian fears of a possible development in the Hamas-Israel relationship are deeply rooted in the Islamic Resistance Movement's history. The late president Yasser Arafat repeated more than once in closed circles that during peace negotiations, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had expressed regret for the earlier Israeli involvement in supporting and encouraging the creation of Hamas. Israel did this during the first intifada in order to counterbalance the growing strength and influence of the PLO.

Now, however, and judging by its behavior, Israel seems comfortable with Hamas' control over Gaza. In addition to undermining Palestinian aspirations for independence and statehood, the split between Hamas in Gaza and Fateh in the West Bank is causing each to compete with the other over who can better prevent Palestinian violence against Israel. The split, moreover, and Hamas' control over Gaza are reducing international pressure on Israel. Israel is thus free to continue its violations of international law, avoiding its responsibility to implement United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, expanding and building more illegal Jewish settlements in occupied territory and maintaining its draconian and inhuman closure policies in both the West Bank and on Gaza.

Maariv, an Israeli newspaper, earlier this month published a report about a meeting between the top eight Palestinian security chiefs, most of whom are new appointees, and the Israeli army commander in the West Bank. The report revealed the extent of the security cooperation between the two sides, centered around the "common enemy", Hamas. The two seem to be anticipating an intensification of the confrontation with Hamas, including in the West Bank next January, when President Mahmoud Abbas' term as president ends.

The irony is that on the one hand Israel is committed to a ceasefire and is conducting prisoner exchange negotiations with Hamas while on the other hand, Israel is supporting, training and coordinating with the West Bank Palestinian security services the continuation of the internal Palestinian confrontations and divisions. This would make sense if on the political level of relations, the two sides were moving toward an agreement on ending the occupation or at least stopping the expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territories. This is not the case.

The Israeli manipulation of the Palestinian leadership and its cooption during the Oslo process, with the consent of the international community, undermined that leadership, and led directly to the popularity of Hamas that ultimately secured its election victory in 2006. The current deepening of Israel-Hamas coordination and cooperation in Gaza and the continuing failure of the political negotiations to end the occupation will only enhance the current trends of radicalization and sustain the factors that caused the shift in the balance of power against the peace camp.- Published 22/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons 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.

We need a better strategy
by Yossi Alpher

The next Israeli government would be well advised to take another look at its approach to Hamas. The objective should be to develop a more coherent strategy toward the Palestinian Islamist movement and its stronghold, the Gaza Strip. (The next American government should follow suit; but that is another matter.)

The current strategy--to the extent it has even been formulated as a strategy by the Olmert government--has not worked well. Economic pressures on the Gazan population have failed to weaken or dislodge Hamas. A military option is repeatedly rejected for fear it will prove costly and counterproductive. A prisoner exchange has proven elusive. Only the ceasefire appears to be working, but even that achievement will be jeopardized if, by the end of its agreed six-month duration in December, there is no progress in other spheres of Hamas-Israel interaction.

A better Israeli strategy for dealing with Hamas is at least partially a function of the success or failure of Israel's peace strategy vis-a-vis the PLO/Fateh and the West Bank. We don't want to strengthen Hamas as a rival to the PLO. Yet, judging by our experience of recent years it is not clear what strengthens and what weakens Hamas: does the Islamist movement, for example, gain more from a ceasefire than from the "martyrdom" of its terrorists who attack our civilians? Nor, by the same token, do we know for sure how to strengthen the PLO as a counterforce to Hamas without jeopardizing our security (for example, by offering excessive or hasty concessions). Even removal of settlements and outposts, which will ostensibly strengthen the PLO when carried out in the West Bank, proved counterproductive to the cause of peaceful coexistence with Hamas in Gaza after 2005.

Clearly, Hamas has entrenched itself in the Gaza Strip. There is no near-term prospect of it being dislodged physically or politically from there, nor is anyone (Israel, the PLO, Egypt) likely soon to try. Israeli and PLO efforts to prevent further aggrandizement of Hamas' power and influence and expansion of the Hamas presence currently focus on the West Bank, not Gaza. Any sort of peace breakthrough or achievement by outgoing Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will, under the best of circumstances, apply only to the West Bank. Needless to say, this constraint is liable to call into question the entire Israeli-Palestinian negotiating project.

It is far more likely that there will be no breakthrough. Either way, Israel has to stop improvising a strategy for dealing with Gaza and come up with a more coherent approach that takes into account the state of relations with the PLO and Egypt but does not allow these two actors to dictate our stand.

Given that the choice between war and a ceasefire with Hamas will remain off the Israeli agenda as long as the current ceasefire continues and appears to be beneficial, there are still two important steps that Israel can take with the objective of developing and articulating a more coherent strategy.

One is to abandon economic sanctions and boycotts of the Gaza Strip. The use of an economic "stick" to influence the behavior of Gazans and their regime has proven fruitless. It causes unnecessary humanitarian hardship on Israel's "watch". Had Israel's economic chokehold on Gaza over the past year produced a more moderate and peace-minded regime there, the imposition of so much suffering might be deemed worthwhile. But this is simply not the case and the time has come to reconsider. The experience of recent years shows that it is far more effective to inflict military blows, including directly senior Hamas leaders, rather than closing passages and limiting supplies of medicines as a means of obliging the Hamas leadership to rethink its terrorist policies.

The second step is to recognize that Hamas is here to stay and is our neighbor and to begin talking directly with the movement, without conditions. Such contacts should initially take place at the informal level. Here and there, Israelis from the political left, right and religious right have already met unofficially on neutral ground with representatives of Hamas. These contacts should be expanded, with Hamas encouraged to send higher level representatives. The idea is not to write draft peace treaties; Hamas is clearly not a candidate. Rather, we should get to know the movement and its thinking better and allow it to know us better.

Perhaps nothing will come of this, but it can't hurt as long as we don't relax our guard. Eventually, such contact can only prove beneficial for the endeavor of developing a better strategy to deal with Hamas and its Gaza stronghold.- Published 22/9/2009 © 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.

A precarious coexistence

by Ali Jarbawi

It is difficult to conceive of two more natural enemies than Hamas and the Zionist movement that dominates Israeli politics. In their different ways, each is rhetorically committed to the destruction of the other. However, their relationship is much more complex and symbiotic than a casual observer might expect.

Israel initially turned a blind eye to the activities and expanding influence of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood and the Mujamma (the "Islamic Center" and institutional home of the Brotherhood in Gaza). Israel believed the traditionalist, non-violent ideology of the Brotherhood would be a counterweight to the secular, nationalist Palestinian political factions. However, with the outbreak of the first intifada, younger leaders within the Mujamma successfully forced the organization to adopt a "jihad now" policy that led to the founding of Hamas. This marked a stark ideological transition from a movement that sought Islamization through communal and educational reform into one that turned to armed resistance and nationalism to achieve its vision of an Islamic society.

The further transformation of Hamas over only two decades into a party political movement in government would surely have surprised its founders. Its willingness, along with Fateh, to compromise basic health and education services and to engage in technical-legal sophistry in pursuit of hegemony over Palestinian secular government institutions would surely have profoundly unsettled them.

Backed to the hilt by its patrons in the US and European government, Fateh refused to play any part in an orderly transfer of power, fanning the flames of the internal conflict currently engulfing Gaza. However, Hamas' extrapolation that its victory was a mandate from all Palestinians everywhere to seize control of all national institutions is blatant folly. With an increasing number of "hawks" from its military arm gaining political power, Hamas employs its security apparatus not just to tackle criminal groups. It is also brutally suppressing political opponents and curtailing the activities of civil society organizations. This is not the mandate given it by citizens who voted for "change and reform" and an end to Fateh corruption and misrule.

No doubt this transformation from bottom-up social movement to top-down autocracy has surprised Israel's political and security establishments too. Israel often receives far more credit for strategic vision and control over the Palestinian arena than it deserves. But, while not entirely controlled by Israel, Hamas' rise is not without positive consequences for its sworn enemy. Firstly, Hamas has proved to be an able guarantor of security for the residents of Israel's southern communities around Gaza, and has seemingly received very little in return for this service. Secondly, Hamas' links to the so-called "Shi'ite crescent" provide Israel's leaders with ample ammunition to justify their denial of the legal and human rights of Palestinians on the grounds of the ill-conceived and failing "war on terror". Thirdly, Gaza can now, more than ever, be cited as a clear example of Palestinian inability to govern and provide human security for the people.

The internal political situation in Israel is now more fragile than ever. Its society is deeply divided and includes powerful and popular groups implacably opposed to any peace agreement that would be acceptable to even the most "dovish" Palestinians. Should Tzipi Livni be successful in forming a governing coalition it will be a fragile one. Her own reputation is fragile too; grave doubts about her leadership and security experience remain. She will undoubtedly seek to ride out the period until the next elections in the prime minister's seat, letting Israeli voters get used to her occupying the top job. Such a recipe for Livni's and Kadima's survival cannot include open confrontation with the settler movement and the orthodox religious parties.

As has been the case for most of the period since Oslo, the Israeli government will continue to pay lip service to the peace process while maintaining its paralysis, thus postponing indefinitely the awful prospect of internal confrontation. Israel is content to see Hamas rule Gaza, but will not risk its rule extending to the West Bank. A politically and socially divided Palestinian society is critical to the "no credible partner for peace" argument that has served Zionism so well in recent years. The Israeli military, provided it maintains (or increases) its current presence, freedom of action and matrix of control, is perfectly capable of preventing Hamas from seizing power in the West Bank.

This approach is obviously inconsistent with the international community's strategy of advancing the peace process through creating a model of security and economic growth in the West Bank. Israel may be happy to let Salam Fayyad's deployment of Palestinian security forces in parts of the northern West Bank continue. However, in practice, this will remain a controlled experiment that will, under no circumstances, be extended to Hebron. Israel may be willing to move a few checkpoints around, like shuffling the deck chairs on a Tel Aviv beach, but it will not relinquish its grip on the overall situation. Of course, the spin-doctors at the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Prime Minister's office will continue to cite their good intentions to "protect Palestinian moderates" from Hamas in the West Bank--a message crafted to appease the international community whilst driving deeper the wedge between Hamas and the political factions of the PLO.

The divide and rule strategy is as old as the hills of Jerusalem and it continues to work. It will continue to be the cornerstone of Israel's strategy in relation to the Palestinians and will govern its relationship with Hamas. With Israel and most of the global community of nations against it (including the major Arab nations), and with its own internal divisions becoming more pronounced, Hamas' chances of gaining further ground beyond its hollow victory in Gaza seem remote. From a national perspective, with Hamas showing signs of the indiscipline and rampant self-interest that has corroded Fateh, the search continues for a unifying leadership that places the goal of ending the occupation ahead of petty political ambitions.- Published 22/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Ali Jarbawi is professor of political science at Birzeit University.

Is Israel engaging Hamas?

by Shlomo Brom

When, in June 2008, Israel and the Hamas movement agreed through Egyptian mediation on a six-month ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, many expected that it would be short-lived. It was assumed the ceasefire would be fragile because of the high lev el of mutual distrust and because it would be difficult to maintain calm in the Gaza Strip while in the West Bank fighting continues. Nevertheless, so far the ceasefire seems stable; there are a few violations by armed actors that do not belong to Hamas but the movement is making great efforts to reign in these rogue elements. Since Hamas succeeded in late July to further strengthen its hold over the Gaza Strip, the movement has been able to enforce the ceasefire even more effectively.

The understandings that enabled the ceasefire included two additional issues--accelerated negotiations on a prisoner exchange and the opening of the Gaza crossings to Israel and Egypt. Here the picture is less rosy. Negotiations over the exchange of Corporal Gilad Shalit for Palestinian prisoners are stumbling and no quick conclusion is expected. The crossings to Israel are open only partially, allowing limited quantities of goods to enter Gaza and almost no export. The Rafah crossing to Egypt is closed most of the time because Cairo is conditioning its opening on progress toward a prisoner exchange.

Some Palestinian observers, close to the Palestinian Authority, suspect that Israel has actually begun to engage Hamas and that, because this will strengthen that movement it will quite naturally take place at the expense of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Salam Fayyad government in the West Bank. Is this really the case? How can these recent developments be interpreted?

Probably the best way to understand these events is by borrowing a term from the world of computers: WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). What we see is a combination of Israeli steps that, taken together, do not make sense. They appear to be not parts of a comprehensive strategy but rather separate decisions that at times contradict one another. For example, if Israel has decided to engage Hamas, why is it dragging its feet on the prisoner exchange and the crossings issues?

The reason appears to be an Israeli decision to cling to the strategy that was adopted after Hamas took over Gaza a year ago, even though realities on the ground demonstrate that this strategy is not really serving Israel's strategic interests vis-a-vis the Palestinians and, indeed, is forcing Israel to take steps that contradict it.

According to the strategy chosen by Jerusalem, Israel will strengthen its peace partners in the West Bank and weaken Hamas, the enemy of peace, in the Gaza Strip. The first half of this formula was supposed to be accomplished through a combination of a political process, Annapolis, that provides the Palestinians with political horizons, steps on the ground that improve living conditions and the economic situation in the West Bank and a build-up of the PA's security organs. The second half would be a combination of military pressure and economic pressure to be achieved by closing the crossings.

The problem is that this strategy is failing. The chance that the two parties will prove capable of concluding an agreement before the end of this year is slim. Living conditions in the West Bank are improving but not dramatically, due to the tension between what is needed to enable more freedom of movement there and Israel's security needs as long as there is no ceasefire in the West Bank. And there are some modest achievements in the reform and build-up of the PA's security arm, but this is a slow process.

The end result is the further weakening of Abbas and the Fayyad government. Hamas has been hurt by pressure in the Gaza Strip and West Bank but this has not decreased its political support substantially and did not prevent it from strengthening its hold over Gaza. There, the ceasefire understandings have to some extent relaxed economic pressures, and the conclusion of a prisoner exchange would bolster Hamas even more. The only immediate achievement, the ceasefire that has enabled Israelis living on the periphery of the Gaza Strip to lead normal and quiet lives, might also collapse in December when Hamas has to decide whether to extend it even though its expectations for a full opening of the crossings have not been fulfilled.

This situation should lead Israel's government to reconfigure its strategy so as to comprise three elements: continuation of efforts to strengthen the Abbas and Fayyad government, support for a Palestinian national dialogue that might lead to reconciliation between the two rival political movements,, and Israeli engagement of Hamas. This combination would better serve the interests of the two peoples and create strong motivation on both sides to maintain calm and stability. But Israel is not there yet.- Published 22/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

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.