b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    December 22, 2008                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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End of the Gaza ceasefire
. Still bargaining        by Ghassan Khatib
Israel and Hamas have their separate interests in renewing a truce agreement.
  . No strategy, no change        by Yossi Alpher
Just as before the ceasefire and during the ceasefire, Israel will continue not knowing what to do about Hamas.
. What now, after the calm?        by Safwat Kahlout
Israel embarrassed Hamas in front of its own people.
  . No good options        by Gerald M. Steinberg
If Hamas remains undeterred and the rocket attacks continue, Israeli leaders will have to choose a military scenario.

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Still bargaining
by Ghassan Khatib

Last week saw the six-month old truce between Hamas in Gaza and Israel expire. The ceasefire, however, had already been interrupted when Israeli troops entered Gaza on November 4, sparking a series of violent exchanges and prompting Israel to almost completely seal the Gaza crossings. Nevertheless, it was still the longest lasting truce in eight years and the recent escalation, which is likely to continue in the next weeks, is both parties' idea of bargaining over an improved extension.

Hamas needs to ensure regularity in the supply of basic goods coming through the crossings into Gaza. For a year-and-a-half, Israel has imposed a draconian closure on Gaza's 1.5 million people, and while Hamas had used the truce to consolidate its control over Gaza and end some of its unfinished business with Fateh in the shape of the Hilles and Dughmoush families, the situation could not go on. Indeed, a spokesperson from Hamas recently decried the just-ended ceasefire as a "security for food agreement". Hamas will need assurances that the crossings will remain open should any future ceasefire be agreed.

Hamas has been sending two kinds of messages. On the one hand, field commanders have been encouraged to declare their intention to resume fighting and some political leaders, especially outside Gaza, have been saying the same. On the other, political leaders in Gaza are leaving the door to a renewed truce open. Perhaps significantly, during the recent celebrations for Hamas' anniversary, some top leaders swore the oath of the Muslim Brotherhood in front of around 200,000 followers. This was unprecedented in the history of the movement and was interpreted in two ways by local analysts. It could be a signal that Hamas is ready to take the more moderate and pragmatic approach that the Muslim Brotherhood is known for, or it can be interpreted as a plea for help from the movement that spawned Hamas but has been critical of some of its more extreme and adventurous positions and behaviors.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, also benefited from the truce, particularly by being relieved of politically damaging protests from southern residents. Nevertheless, Israel wants to improve the terms of any renewed truce, not least in trying to force Hamas back to negotiations over a prisoner exchange for the captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Moreover, Israel is uncomfortable with the dramatic increase in smuggling under the Gaza-Egypt border. The smuggling has been encouraged and enabled by Hamas as a response to Israel's closure on Gaza's crossings. Nevertheless, this is another issue Israel will want to address in any future deal.

The upcoming Israeli elections are another factor strongly influencing the behavior of the two parties. The different Israeli political leaders are using the Gaza escalation as a way to ensure that in front of voters they look tough on Hamas and are seen to act to end rocket fire and make progress in bringing Shalit home. At the same time, those political leaders in government know that if they overplay their hand, it could backfire. Hamas too understands that while an Israeli government can be violently dangerous around election time, it is also vulnerable, and the normally harmless rocket and mortar fire will be magnified enormously under the lens of elections.

Israel and Hamas, in other words, have their separate interests in renewing a truce agreement but also the shared objective of maintaining the division between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That division ensures Hamas control over the only bit of Palestinian territory not completely under Israeli control. It also allows Israel to unilaterally determine the future of the West Bank, especially East Jerusalem, by accelerating its settlement project there and frees the country from international pressure.

Hence, and even if the current round of escalation might continue for some time, particularly during the Israeli election campaign, the two sides will likely forge a new agreement in the not too distant future.- Published 22/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.

No strategy, no change
by Yossi Alpher

The official end of the six-month ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza is not going to change very much in Israel-Hamas relations. Of course, it could change a lot for those Israelis and Palestinians who may now again be exposed to more intense physical danger. But just as before the ceasefire and during the ceasefire, Israel will continue not knowing what to do about Hamas.

Not only Israel, but Egypt, the PLO, the United States and Europe as well will remain at a loss. None of these actors has a workable strategy for dealing with Hamas. While the more distant actors in Washington and Brussels can perhaps afford to continue muddling through this issue, for Jerusalem, Cairo and Ramallah this has become a critical and inexcusable lacuna.

All three would like Hamas to disappear. But they don't know how to make this happen, at least not at a reasonable price. And when they fail, they have no reasonable alternatives to fall back on.

Obviously, it is Israel that concerns us here. Over the three years since Hamas began gradually taking over the Gaza Strip, first through elections and then by force, Israel has invoked a variety of economic, military and political measures for dealing with it. All have proven ineffective.

The most constant strategy has been economic boycott or blockade. The goal is to prevent all but the most basic necessities in terms of food, medicine and services from reaching Gazans, on the assumption that this will turn them against their Hamas government. Here Israel has enjoyed the explicit or tacit support of Egypt, the PLO and the West.

This strategy, invoked prior to and during the recently-ended ceasefire, has inflicted terrible humanitarian suffering on 1.5 million Gazans without producing any obvious political benefit in terms of altering Hamas' attitude toward Israel or reducing the violence emanating from Gaza. Indeed, it appears to be counterproductive, insofar as it has caused the population to rally round its leadership and has led Hamas to encourage an underground economy (both literally, through the philadelphi tunnels, and in classic economic terms) that benefits Hamas insiders while stripping traditional moderate commercial interests in Gaza of both their dignity and their assets.

In fact, the only security justification for keeping Gaza commercial passages closed is the penchant of Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza to attack them when they are open. This is by way of acknowledging that, when it comes to Gaza, Hamas too is capable of invoking a counterproductive strategy. But this hardly justifies the Israeli insistence on economic boycott as a productive long-term approach.

A second Israeli strategy is to invoke limited warfare against Hamas and other militants in Gaza, on a kind of tit-for-tat basis. This approach produces occasional limited reductions in Hamas military activity, alternating in spates of escalation, but never leading to a resolution of the conflict: everybody suffers, nothing is concluded. An adjunct to this dysfunctional strategy is Israel's growing investment in civil defense measures, meaning primarily shelters, among the communities located in a growing radius around Gaza that is targeted by Hamas rockets. The greater the investment in defense, the more obvious the admission that the limited offensive military strategy doesn't work.

One possible exception to this list of failed military strategies is a concerted campaign to target the Hamas leadership as a means of deterring it from supporting aggression against Israel. This approach was temporarily effective in 2004, when Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantisi were assassinated, leading to six months of peace and quiet. But for obvious legal and ethical reasons, this is a controversial strategy both internationally and domestically.

An alternative military strategy not yet invoked would be to launch a full-fledged military invasion aimed at reoccupying Gaza and physically eliminating Hamas. The high price Israel would pay in civilian and military casualties, the difficulty in maintaining control over 1.5 million civilians in reoccupied Gaza, the trauma of an unsuccessful military campaign in Lebanon in 2006, the regional and international complications and, most glaringly, the absence of a workable exit strategy that could turn over a pacified Gaza Strip to an alternative sovereign capable of maintaining control--all combine to prohibit such an adventure. Of course, this doesn't prevent some of our politicians from talking about it endlessly.

Here it bears mention that, in addition to these failed strategies, Israel's focus on Gaza is also currently influenced in an exaggerated manner by two side-issues: approaching elections and the fate of a single IDF soldier in Hamas captivity.

There is a growing school of Israeli strategic thinkers who advocate a radical strategic reversal and a resort to political means: opening a political dialogue with Hamas. Here, too, the obstacles are considerable. First of all, most Hamas leaders and activists refuse to talk to Israelis, preferring to convey their demands and ideas via the media and third parties. Even were they to agree to meet and talk, their agenda is limited to a set of demands that are extremist compared to those discussed with the PLO: ceasefire rather than peace along the 1967 lines, no recognition, and insistence on the right of return of all Palestinian refugees.

Moreover, the very act of talking to Hamas about these demands would violate a set of preconditions for engagement proffered by Israel and the Quartet back when Hamas won the last Palestinian elections: Hamas must first recognize the right of Israel to exist, abandon violence and accept all previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. Those demands never made sense as preconditions for talking between enemies. But Israel can hardly abandon them unilaterally without coordinating with the Quartet. Perhaps the Obama administration, with its apparent readiness to engage America's (and Israel's) state enemies unconditionally, will consider talking to Hamas as well.

Yet doing so would undermine the already weakened PLO with which Israel continues to negotiate along more reasonable lines. And it would strengthen the possibility of the emergence of a "three-state solution", with Israel confronting "Hamastan" in Gaza and a Fateh-dominated mini-state in the West Bank. This is not a strategic decision that Israel should take without consulting with its Arab neighbors.

Meanwhile, yet another strategy--ceasefire--has failed, at least for now. The development of effective anti-Qassam and anti-mortar weapons that could neutralize Hamas' offensive capabilities is years away. Hamas appears to be here to stay--on the Israeli, Palestinian and Middle East Islamic scene. Under these circumstances, whether we are now entering into an informal ceasefire, a new round of conflict or something in between appears to be largely irrelevant to the big picture. That Israel has difficulty acknowledging this fact--that it's ineffective leaders continue to bluster day in and day out with an utter lack of credibility about what Israel is going to do to Hamas rather than acknowledging strategic bankruptcy as a first step toward more constructive thinking--is part of the problem.- Published 22/12/2008 © 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.

What now, after the calm?

by Safwat Kahlout

In Gaza, everyone is asking what will happen now that the truce has ended. Gazans are deeply concerned about their future after the termination of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that saw an almost complete end to fighting between Israeli occupation troops and Palestinian militant groups for six months.

When the Palestinian factions agreed to the ceasefire in June, the aim was to provide breathing space for Gazans, who, since June 2007, had endured an almost complete Israeli blockade on goods coming into Gaza. As the governing party in Gaza, Hamas entered into the agreement in the hope that it would improve the conditions of Gazan lives and provide itself with a rest in which to consolidate its control.

But Israel embarrassed Hamas in front of its own people as well as those factions who all along argued that Israel would not be committed to easing the closure on Gaza. The economy in Gaza has almost collapsed. The electricity supply is unreliable, there is a shortage of everything from cooking gas to medicine, while unemployment and poverty have soared. As time went on, more and more people questioned the logic of a truce that had been greeted with great hope. What was it for, only to improve the lives of Israelis in Sderot?

Indeed, people began arguing that Hamas had simply sought to protect itself with the agreement and that the movement cared little for the public interest. This was the kind of criticism that the movement could not long leave unanswered. Two options were open to it: either seek an improved agreement or go back to the option of resistance.

In addition to these domestic factors, there is an external dimension. Cairo had brokered the last agreement but did not try to mediate a renewal. Irritated by Hamas' refusal to attend reconciliation talks with Fateh in Egypt in November, it seems Cairo has sought to teach Hamas a lesson. Egypt is therefore standing by without intervening to prevent escalation.

Nevertheless, the dramatic conflagration that some expected has also not happened. The Israeli army has not invaded Gaza and does not appear ready for such a move. Israel is preparing for elections and will not want to enter into any unpredictable military adventure. A major operation will see a massive Palestinian response that would affect Israeli towns near Gaza and would reverberate strongly on the elections. Furthermore, Israel perceives that the militant factions in Gaza are stronger now than they were before and is also wary of endangering Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier.

This does not mean that there won't be a new wave of violence. Indeed, it seems almost certain that, at least for a while, the escalation will continue. Both sides will not want to blink first and it will need third party intervention at some point to prevent the escalation from becoming a major conflagration.

Eventually, it is likely that Egypt will try to forge a new agreement. Cairo does not want a huge escalation on its borders and Egypt knows that both Israel and Hamas would prefer to maintain the calm. Any new agreement, however, cannot simply be an extension of the old one. Hamas will need assurances that Gaza's crossings will be open for more than humanitarian goods. Israel will want progress on a prisoner swap for Shalit.

It will be a test of Egyptian diplomacy to see if Cairo can mediate such an agreement before the logic of escalation has gone beyond the point of no return.- Published 22/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Safwat Kahlout is a Gaza-based journalist.

No good options

by Gerald M. Steinberg

The on-again, off-again, coordinated but unwritten ceasefire or temporary truce between Israel and Hamas may or may not be over for now. With such a thin foundation, no direct communications between leaders and divisions among factions within both the Hamas and Israeli leaderships, the uncertainty and confusion is understandable.

Beyond the fiery threats from Hamas leaders and the brutal psychodramas focusing on kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, as well as Israeli election rhetoric, this quasi-truce has served the interests of both sides. The rocket and mortar attacks during the previous year had brought the Israeli town of Sderot and its neighbors to the breaking point and perhaps beyond. In Gaza, Israel's responses were causing damage to Hamas. There were good reasons for a brief respite.

But this truce was also problematic. Hamas, as a revolutionary fundamentalist group linked to the Iranian agenda, has placed itself on the front lines. If it were to reach a long-term accommodation, tacit or more formalized, Hamas would be ideologically or politically indistinguishable from Fateh.

From the Israeli perspective, the Gazan version of Hizballah, with similar weapons and strategy, is also viewed as highly threatening. Israel depends on deterrence through the threat of effective response to attack, and in this regard the 2006 Lebanon campaign was not successful. Allowing Hamas to acquire a supply of rockets with increasing range has exacerbated this weakness. In addition, the failure to obtain the release of Gilad Shalit as part of the original ceasefire is subject to increasing criticism among the Israeli public, and has become an election issue for Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Indeed, the Olmert government's strategy toward Gaza following the latter's coup against the Palestinian Authority and Fateh is generally seen as a failure. The policy of isolation and blockade did not lead to a collapse, as had been hoped. And following Arafat's lead, the Hamas leadership did not start to act "responsibly" and take the welfare of its citizens into account after it took power. In addition, Israeli reliance on Egypt also failed as Cairo proved too weak to stop the flow of arms and explosives or influence the Hamas leadership.

On this basis, for many Israeli decision-makers the argument for a large-scale ground operation to disarm Hamas and destroy its leadership has become stronger, particularly as Sderot is again being bombarded and Ashkelon is likely to follow. If an IDF incursion is necessary, it is better to get it over with earlier, including likely military and civilian casualties as well as international condemnations, rather than waiting for Hamas to accrue even more deadly missiles. Since there are political costs in waiting until the Obama presidency begins, such an operation may come before January 20. And if it is successful, a greatly weakened Hamas will also help President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority regain power in Gaza.

But those who urge caution note the potential for major Israeli casualties and the absence of an exit strategy. Israeli re-occupation of Gaza would be very costly diplomatically, militarily and economically, while a quick exit would be seen as a victory for Hamas. In other words, if Israel launches a major operation to end the missile attacks it will need a clear-cut success and will have to accept the accompanying costs.

As an alternative, some analysts have suggested that an international force be sent to keep the peace in Gaza. But this is highly unrealistic: any foreign "peacekeepers" would quickly become targets for terror attacks as well as for political manipulation. Here again, the Lebanon example is instructive--the "new and improved" UNIFIL, operating under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and European command, is no more capable than the pre-2006 model. Furthermore, in discussing international forces in Gaza the Palestinians and their allies would insist on including the West Bank in this mandate, thereby creating a conflict with Israel.

A few other participants in this debate continue to call for "talks" and negotiations with Hamas, citing the progress in relations between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or between China and Taiwan. But these cases do not involve radical Islamist factions: the nature of the core conflict is very different, as is the regional environment. The governments of the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom cooperated to bring about negotiated settlement, but in the Middle East most of the outside governments, such as Iran, Syria and Libya, are part of the conflict.

The bottom line is that there are no good options. But if Hamas remains undeterred and the rocket attacks continue, Israeli leaders will have to choose a military scenario, with the hope that their objectives can be achieved.-Published 22/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Gerald M. Steinberg is chair of the Political Science Department at Bar Ilan University and Executive Director of NGO Monitor.

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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.