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Will Israel honour a truce?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 03 - 2008

With an unannounced truce in place, attention turns to Israeli actions, given past precedent of ignoring all agreements with the Palestinians, reports Saleh Al-Naami in Gaza
Top Israeli television commentators competed last Friday night to justify reneging on positions they had held until three days earlier when they had believed that the only way of countering resistance operations in the Gaza Strip was through the use of violence. There is a consensus among Israeli commentators that Israel can only wait for the worst if Palestinians continue to fall victims to the fire of the Israeli occupation. This consensus was reached after a chain of operations conducted by Palestinian resistance movements in the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem and the popular outcry in the West Bank following massacres Israel committed in the Gaza Strip at the beginning of this month that resulted in the deaths of 144 Palestinians with hundreds of others injured.
Rafif Droker, political commentator on Israeli television Channel 10, considers what is currently taking place in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza as the "harbingers of a third Intifada". He said, "it is not wise for military operations in the Gaza Strip to contribute to the outbreak of a third Intifada. The government must study all the means possible for putting out the fire that's raging in Gaza, or else not only the cities of the West Bank will burn, but there is reason to believe that our cities will turn into an arena for suicide operations once again."
Ofer Shileh, a talk show presenter on the same channel, warns that through its "uncalculated escalation" in Gaza, Israel is risking losing all of the achievements it has made over the last two years and in particular the isolation of Hamas and the legitimacy afforded to Israel's siege upon it. "Israel made a major achievement when it succeeded in cementing the split between Fatah and Hamas, and specifically when it convinced [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] to direct his forces in the West Bank to strike Hamas. Yet should a new Intifada break out, Hamas and Fatah will unite to confront us. We will lose [Abbas] and the entire moderate current in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the Palestinian arena will remain under the total control of Hamas," Shileh said.
Most of the commentary that has filled Israeli media channels has carried the same message. It has concurred that despite the harsh tone used by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister of Defence Ehud Barak, most of decision makers in Israel's political and military institutions have begun to believe that a means must be sought for reaching a truce with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, whether through direct or indirect communications. Seemingly, recent operations convinced the Israeli government to stop trying to bring down the Hamas government, even though it announced that this was the main goal of its campaign in the Gaza Strip.
Chico Manshiyeh, the well-known political commentator, has said that none of the ministers in the Israeli government continue to see the collapse of the Hamas government as a realistic goal and that the Israeli government has stopped trying to achieve it. He adds that the Israeli government's reneging on its insistence on this goal can be traced to the fact that collapsing the Hamas government requires waging a military campaign throughout the entire Gaza Strip. Manshiyeh says that recent Israeli military operations and the Palestinian resistance they elicited have convinced Israeli political and military leaders that reoccupying the Gaza Strip would entail the loss of a large number of Israeli soldiers.
Be that as it may, it appears certain that a major reason for Israel's backing off from Gaza is the dramatic change in the American position towards Hamas. The US administration had encouraged Israel to strike Hamas in order to deepen the split between the West Bank and Gaza. Yet the administration has reportedly grown convinced that this goal is impossible, and that the more realistic solution lies in a truce agreement between Israel and Hamas. For the first time, the US administration has begun actively to contribute towards efforts to reach a truce between Israel and the Palestinians; Secretary of State Rice sent her deputy, David Welch, to Cairo to urge the Egyptian government to exert the greatest efforts possible to reach a truce.
Khaled Al-Butsh, a prominent Islamic Jihad leader, points to another reason that explains the US administration's enthusiasm over reaching a truce between Palestinian resistance factions and Israel. "The United States and some Arab parties don't want the coming Arab summit to be one that discusses Israeli aggression. They want to shift the view to Lebanon and the presidential election, and this is where all this interest in reaching a truce stems from," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
An informed Palestinian source told the Weekly that Palestinian factions and Israel have in fact agreed on a temporary truce upon the request of the Egyptian government. This source stated that all Palestinian factions have committed to halting the fire of rockets for a limited period in return for Israel's commitment to halt its attacks in Gaza. The source stressed that any truce was "temporary" until Cairo prepares a deal that will include lifting the siege on Gaza in addition to a prisoner exchange in which hundreds of Palestinian prisoners will be released in return for the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The source confirmed that Palestinian factions agreed on a temporary truce in order to afford Egypt opportunity to communicate with Israel and the US on the basis of a more permanent truce.
Signs of commitment to the temporary truce are that the number of rockets fired by Palestinian factions at Israel has diminished to nearly zero while the Israeli army, with the exception of a limited number of operations, has not escalated operations within the Gaza Strip even though all signs had indicated that it was on the verge of doing so. The source also said that the truce could fall apart at any moment should any of the parties interpret the behaviour of the other as justification for breaking it. It would be sufficient, for example, for Israel to assassinate activists in any Palestinian faction, either in the West Bank or in Gaza. Likewise, Israel might attack Gaza in response to operations conducted in the West Bank or Jerusalem.
Though unannounced, the de facto truce appears to be holding. Since late last week, the Gaza Strip has been calm. Haaretz newspaper reported Monday that the Israeli government had issued strict instructions to the army leadership to limit operations as much as possible. Sami Abu Zahari, Hamas spokesperson, holds that any permanent truce must satisfy the conditions set by the Palestinian factions, foremost breaking the siege on Gaza and halting Israeli army operations in the West Bank. "It must be a mutual and concurrent truce," he told the Weekly. "We won't give a free truce to anyone."
Ghazi Hamad, former spokesperson of the Palestinian government, and who is playing a role in efforts to reach a truce, told the Weekly that Palestinian factions have suggested to the Egyptian government that it work to form an international or Arab committee to oversee any truce agreement. "Since the truce agreement reached between Israel and the resistance movements in February 2005, more than 2,500 Palestinians have been killed," he said. "This fact means that an agreement needs to be reached on a mechanism for international or Arab monitoring of the ceasefire."
In turn, reaching the unannounced truce has allowed the resumption of negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. It is expected that the first round of negotiations between the two sides since the recent Israeli military escalation will take place on Thursday 14 March. Yet Nimr Hamad, political advisor to President Abbas, stresses that all evidence suggests that Israel is not prepared for a political settlement, no matter how meagre. "Although we know the outcome in advance, we will wait until the end of the year and see what the negotiations produce," he told the Weekly. "Then we will turn to the Arab nation and we will say that we adopted the Arab initiative and that we undertook all the requirements in the roadmap, but that we failed to convince Israel to deal with us seriously."
Based on previous experience, the unannounced truce reached at the end of last week may not survive long. The test of Egyptian efforts will be Cairo's success in convincing Tel Aviv to halt its oppressive policies against Palestinians in the West Bank. Many remember the experience of truce agreements in 2003 and 2005, when Israel systematically broke them by assassinating Palestinian resistance activists. On the other hand, if the siege is not lifted, Palestinian factions will not be obliged to hold to the truce. Yet again, the ball is in Israel's court.


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