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A Temporary Truce?

The rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza have stopped for now. So have the Israeli raids into the coastal strip. But the majority of Israelis are deeply skeptical that the truce with Hamas, which went into effect last Thursday, will endure. Many also believe that it represents a major achievement for the Islamic movement, not for Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who ultimately agreed to the truce, reflected public doubts when he said that the government had "no illusions. The calm is fragile and likely to be short-lived. Hamas has not changed its skin. These are bloodthirsty and despicable terrorists who even today are doing all they can to harm Israeli civilians."

Yossi Alpher, the former director of the prestigious Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv who has written extensively on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, agrees that despite the truce, an Israeli invasion of Gaza is still more likely than an extended, ongoing period of calm. But he is happy Israel is beginning to lift its economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, which he says raises ethical concerns and has harmed its strategic interests.

"For Israel, this is a tactical ceasefire, not a strategic decision," he told the Inter Press Service. "The feeling is still that we will end up with a major military operation. It is less likely that the truce will be a dramatic first step to greater coexistence. It is more likely that we will see the continuation of the countdown to a major clash."

Those who support a truce and argue against a major Israeli military operation in Gaza, which would be aimed at halting the rocket fire and undermining Hamas, are concerned that the government does not have a clear exit strategy. Even if Hamas is dealt a serious blow, they say, the army will ultimately have to pull out of Gaza, and the government will end up having to negotiate a ceasefire with the Islamic movement.

Alpher, who served as special advisor to former prime minister Ehud Barak during negotiations with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000 and was a former senior official in Israel’s Mossad spy agency, does not believe the absence of an exit strategy will ultimately convince Israelis it is not worth launching a broad offensive in Gaza. Military intervention, he says, will occur when the Israeli public and the political establishment reach the conclusion that "a bloody encounter with heavy Israeli casualties and going into Gaza without an exit strategy is better than having an Iranian proxy [Hamas] threatening us from the Gaza Strip."

For Hamas, the truce represents two major achievements: It has forced Israel to negotiate with it—even if indirectly—via the Egyptians, who mediated the truce deal. It has also begun to puncture the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel ever since the Islamic movement routed the more moderate Fatah party and seized control of the area a year ago.

According to the truce deal, Israel will begin increasing the flow of goods and raw materials into the strip and will also progressively allow the opening of the border crossings into Gaza if quiet prevails. With Israel easing the blockade and indirectly engaging Hamas, some European countries, who until now have shunned the Islamic movement, have signaled that they will begin to engage it. One of the "strategic consequences" of Israel agreeing to the truce, says Alpher, is that "Hamas is breaking its isolation."

Another is that it has been strengthened at the expense of the more moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is currently engaged in talks with Israel but which have so far yielded little tangible progress. "Abbas has been weakened," says Alpher. "Hamas has gotten something from Israel and he can’t."

Alpher, who has coordinated many “Track Two” informal dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians and who is also the coeditor of bitterlemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue on the Internet, is happy that the economic blockade of Gaza is being lifted. Besides violating human rights, he says, it has proven ineffective.

"The economic blockade was a huge mistake by Israel. For 41 years, a variety of Israeli governments have tried to use economic carrots and sticks to influence Palestinian behavior. We haven’t learned that it hasn’t worked. It has made the Palestinians more pro-Hamas. And it is on our conscience because it is an ugly thing to do. It is not an effective weapon. I am glad it’s over."

One of the most oft-repeated arguments against a truce with Hamas is that it will give the Islamic movement time to rearm and to prepare itself better for any future Israeli operation in Gaza. Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the truce—he has called it "a victory for radical Islam"—insists that "in the end" Israel will be left with no choice but to launch a major operation in Gaza. By agreeing to a period of calm with Hamas, he said recently, Israel will pay "a much higher price" in lives lost.

While Alpher concurs, he thinks that the truce will also give Israel time to prepare its own defenses against Palestinian rocket attacks. He is referring, among other things, to several Israeli projects aimed at developing a system to intercept the rockets fired from Gaza. "There are a number of R&D projects which I hope will be accelerated," he says. "These are anti-rocket missiles and lasers."

Supporters of the truce have argued that Israel’s relations with Egypt cannot be ignored in the decision to agree to a cessation of hostilities. Egypt is just one of two Arab states with whom Israel has a peace agreement, and with the Egyptians having invested so much energy in brokering the truce, they argue, an Israeli rejection of the deal could have resulted in a serious crisis in relations between the two countries.

"We are counting on Egypt to make a better effort to stop the smuggling," says Alpher, referring to the smuggling of weapons by Palestinian militants from the Egyptian side of the border into Gaza via underground tunnels, some of them 20 metres deep.

Israel, he adds, cannot ignore the fact that when Hamas took over Gaza, it became "a major factor in Israel-Egypt relations." Egypt, he says, is worried by the impact that a Hamas-controlled Gaza will have on the aspirations of Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood inside the country. "That’s the reason they pressed for a ceasefire," he explains.

At one point in the truce negotiations, Israel had tried to tie its agreement to a halt in the fighting to the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier who was abducted in a cross-border raid two years ago and has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza ever since. Ultimately, Olmert agreed to the truce without the release of Shalit, but renewed talks on his release are now meant to be part of the staged implementation of the ceasefire.

Alpher believes that the halt in fighting improves the chances of progress in talks on Shalit’s release. "There will be no prisoner exchange as long as there is fighting," he says. "In the absence of fighting, there will be an improved atmosphere."

Peter Hirschberg writes for the Inter Press Service.

Citations

Peter Hirschberg, “A Temporary Truce?,” Right Web, with permission from Inter Press Service (Somerville, MA: PRA, 2008). Web location:
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