Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Discussing an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire

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Update from AIJAC

May 2, 2008
Number 05/08 #01


The Israeli government is reportedly considering whether to accept a truce deal with Hamas and twelve other Palestinian terrorist factions brokered by Egypt, with senior Defence Ministry official Amos Gilad off to Egypt shortly to discuss the deal with Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman. This Update provides some background on the reported terms of the deal, and the considerations that will shape Israel's decision.

First up, Zvi Bar'el of Haaretz analyses the terms of the deal and especially what Israel and Hamas will claim are of benefit to them. For Israel, he points out that the main improvement over past Hamas offers is that Israel now gets freedom of action in the West Bank -  ie Hamas' demand that Israel stop arresting people there (which Israel says would lead to major terror attacks in days) in exchange for a halt to rocket fire has been changed to a mere vague suggestion this should happen in future months. For Hamas, the major concession is the opening of the Rafah crossing into Egypt (to be run by European observers and PA forces, without an overt Hamas presence as previously demanded), which creates some risks to Israel. For Bar'el's full analysis, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki says Egypt expects Israel to accept the agreement.

Next up, Yaakov Katz of the Jerusalem Post examines the pros and cons of the ceasefire from an Israeli point of view. He points out that the military believes six months of ceasefire will benefit Hamas a great deal, in terms of arming, extending the range of its rockets, and fortifying to prevent Israeli counter-attack. However, Israel will not want to offend either the Egyptians or the Americans by saying no, and will also view the ceasefire as a possible step toward gaining the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. For Katz's full discussion of Israel's considerations in weighing how to react, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, reports say that much of the Israeli security cabinet as well as Defence Minister Ehud Barak are opposed to the deal at this time.

Finally, top Middle East expert Ephraim Karsh, in a piece presumably written before the details of the truce deal came to light, explores in general the prospects of successful diplomatic engagement with Hamas. He argues that the destruction of Israel is not a bargaining chip with Hamas, but the heart of the matter, and any diplomatic engagement would not only poison any political process, but also have an "impact on the larger war on terrorism." For this expert's not terribly optimistic diagnosis of the overall Hamas problem, CLICK HERE. Karsh specifically responds to an article by Haaretz's Ari Shavit calling for more attempts to find an arrangement - "a deal with thugs" - with Hamas, which is here. Also commenting on Hamas' ability (or lack thereof) to change its stripes is Israeli - Palestinian affairs expert Moshe Elad.

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Truce Deal / Hamas claims victory

By Zvi Bar'el, Haaretz Correspondent

Haaretz, May 1, 2008

Several Arab states were required to bring about the truce with the Palestinian factions in Cairo on Wednesday. Egypt orchestrated the move, but in coordination with Jordan and Saudi Arabia and with Syria's assistance.

The Egyptians' resolve stemmed from their fear that Hamas would carry out its threats of another breach of the border, with thousands of Gazans spilling into Egyptian territory.

Hamas' rigid opening position included a comprehensive cease-fire both in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a written commitment for a full opening of the Rafah border crossing and a prisoners' release.    

These required flexibility on Egypt's part, which is reflected in an explicit promise - Hamas says it is a real commitment although apparently it was not given in writing - to open the border. This promise softened Mahmoud a-Zahar's stance and he accepted the "Gaza first" idea.

The rest of the deal was more-or-less expected. The Palestinian faction leaders demanded reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah as part of the cease-fire package but made do with Egypt's promise to make an effort to bring the sides together.

Now the technical details regarding the border crossing's opening remain. Will the Palestinian Authority's forces be posted at the crossing or at some distance away and be responsible only for the European inspectors' safety; what will the European inspectors' authority be and mainly, what guarantees will Egypt present to Israel regarding the supervision on Palestinians' entry and exit through the terminal. At any rate, Egypt, as the agreement's custodian, has undertaken to be responsible for Hamas' "good behavior" as well as for security in the Rafah crossing point.

Egypt went to a lot of trouble to balance Israel and Hamas' demands to prevent either side from claiming victory. Israel "received," at least on paper, quiet in Sderot and the western Negev and freedom of action in the West Bank, while Hamas received Rafah. Hamas is presenting the agreement as a victory for the Palestinian nation and for violent resistance. But it cannot claim an all-Palestinian achievement because Israel has retained freedom of action in the West Bank.

However, Hamas will continue holding "the right to veto" the peace process, supported by the Palestinian resistance groups that agreed to the cease-fire. Thus the truce has brought about a historic upheaval - secular Palestinian groups seeking shelter under the wing of a religious movement to achieve political clout.

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Analysis: Edging toward 'silent acceptance' of a truce

By YAAKOV KATZ

Jerusalem Post, May 2, 2008

When it comes to Egypt's proposal for a cease-fire in Gaza, the Israeli defense establishment is united on at least one assessment - Hamas has everything to gain from six months of quiet in the Strip.

The differences begin to surface when officials start pondering the pros and cons for Israel of the proffered truce.

Ultimately, the decision on whether to accept Cairo's proposal will be up to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The position of the IDF's Southern Command has been quite clear all along. OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant has said on more than one occasion in recent closed-door meetings that Hamas would use a cease-fire to rebuild its military infrastructure, extend the range of its rockets and fortify its positions ahead of a future Israeli invasion.

IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi has yet to make his opinion publicly known. He has, however, objected to a large-scale operation in Gaza since taking office a little over a year ago and as such may prefer a six-month cease-fire over the alternative, which is a continuation of hostilities and an eventual Israeli invasion.

There are, however, other considerations that are not purely military.

One is the fate of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. Officials involved in the truce talks told The Jerusalem Post this week that the soldier's release would be dramatically expedited were the cease-fire accepted by Israel.

In addition, the cease-fire could enable Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to regain a foothold in the Gaza Strip for the first time since Hamas violently took it over last June.

Under the package approved by Hamas and the other Palestinian factions, the Rafah crossing to Egypt would reopen according to the agreement reached by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005.

Based on that agreement, European monitors would deploy at the crossing and assist officers from the PA's Presidential Guard - loyal to Abbas - in running the border terminal.

From an Egyptian point of view, the reopening of Rafah is symbolic for a number of reasons.

First, it lifts the siege on Gaza and enables Palestinians to travel freely in and out of the Strip. More importantly, it strengthens what Cairo calls the "pragmatic elements" in Hamas - such as Ismail Haniyeh - and at the same time enables Abbas to slowly reestablish a Fatah presence in Gaza.

According to an Israeli official closely involved in the talks with Cairo, if Israel were to outright reject the cease-fire proposal this would be interpreted as a slap in the face of President Hosni Mubarak and Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, who have both invested considerable time and energy in obtaining Hamas's approval.

If Israel accepts the cease-fire, Egypt will have to play a crucial role.

One of Israel's greatest concerns with a truce is the possibility that Hamas will continue smuggling weapons into Gaza and build up its military infrastructure at an unprecedented rate. It will be up to Egypt to prevent this.

In the end what is likely to happen is that Israel will "silently" accept the offer. Olmert will not hold a press conference and announce Israel's acceptance of the cease-fire but the message will likely be transmitted in the talks defense official Amos Gilad holds regularly with Suleiman.

Israel also has to be concerned about its image abroad and what the international community will say if it rejects the cease-fire.

The US, the Post has reported, is pressuring Jerusalem to wrap up the deal ahead of President George W. Bush's visit to Israel in two weeks. And Israel would have a tough time explaining its policies abroad if it continues firing in Gaza when Hamas and the other factions have all announced their readiness to lay down their weapons.

Olmert's political standing also needs to be accounted for. If he agrees to the cease-fire and it lasts, he could use the quiet in Sderot and the rest of the Gaza-belt communities as an asset ahead of the political turbulence that is expected toward the end of the year.

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The Diplomatic Dance with Hamas

Efraim Karsh

Jerusalem Issue Brief
Vol. 7, No. 37    30 April 2008

  • Hamas established an "Islamic republic" in Gaza in early 2006, and is probably in a position to replicate this success in the West Bank - the only inhibiting factors being considerations of political expediency and Israel's effective counterinsurgency measures.
  • While the hope that Hamas could somehow be lured away from its genocidal agenda seems to be gaining wider currency, not only is the destruction of Israel not a bargaining chip, it is the heart of the matter.
  • Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, sees the struggle for Palestine as neither an ordinary political dispute between two contending nations (Israelis and Palestinians), nor even as a struggle for national self-determination by an indigenous population against a foreign occupier. Rather, it sees Palestine as but one battle in a worldwide holy war to prevent the fall of a part of the House of Islam to infidels.
  • In the words of Hamas foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar: "Islamic and traditional views reject the notion of establishing an independent Palestinian state....In the past, there was no independent Palestinian state....[Hence], our main goal is to establish a great Islamic state, be it pan-Arabic or pan-Islamic."
  • Hamas' extreme belief that a perpetual state of war exists between it and anyone, either Muslim or non-Muslim, who refuses to follow in the path of Allah does not permit it to respect, or compromise with, cultural, religious, and political beliefs that differ from its own. Its commitment to the use of violence as a religious duty means that it will never accept a political arrangement that doesn't fully correspond to its radical precepts.
No sooner had former U.S. President Jimmy Carter emerged from his Damascus meeting with Khaled Mashaal to declare Hamas' readiness to accept the Jewish state as a "neighbor next door" than the radical Islamist group demonstrated what its vision of peaceful coexistence meant by making the most ambitious attempt to kidnap Israeli soldiers and detonating two car bombs at a border crossing used for the introduction of vital foodstuffs and humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Hamas' foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, reasserted the organization's commitment to Israel's destruction through demographic subversion (i.e., the "right of return") and vowed to continue the "armed struggle" against "the foundational crime at the core of the Jewish state." Attalah Abu Subh, Hamas' culture minister, amplified this assertion. "Everything we see in the Arab region and around the world - the evil of the Jews, their deceit, their cunning, their warmongering, their control of the world, and their contempt and scorn for all the peoples of the world," he argued, "is based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion - the faith that every Jew harbors in his heart."

The notion that Hamas' co-option into a political process aimed at stifling its overriding goal of destroying Israel will make it more hopeful and less despairing is a contradiction in terms. Yet the hope that Hamas could somehow be lured away from its genocidal agenda seems to be gaining wider currency. A bipartisan group of former U.S. officials, led by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, have been calling for "a genuine dialogue" with Hamas.1 Former Secretary of State Colin Powell told National Public Radio last year that some way must be found to talk to Hamas.2

Some Israelis have also joined the chorus calling for talks with Hamas. "Before we are dragged into Gaza, we must exhaust the other possibility," wrote journalist Ari Shavit. "We should offer Hamas a deal: an Islamic republic in Gaza in exchange for full demilitarization. A full and fulfilling life for a Muslim community of brothers, in exchange for giving up violence and arms altogether."

Shavit is aware that his proposal is likely to be rejected, as Hamas "tends to prefer the deaths of Israelis over the lives of Palestinians." Yet he believes that "if there is any chance of a frank negotiation with Hamas, this is the path the talks should take. Not a Carter-style illusion, not the temporary tactic of a passing tahdiye (truce), but a tough deal with tough terms. A street deal. A deal with thugs. A deal meant to give those who live on the other side of the fence a genuine opportunity to lay down the sword, pick up the Koran and become real neighbors."

But why should Hamas pay a price, any price, for something it already has? It needs no Israeli consent to establish an "Islamic republic" in Gaza. It did precisely that in early 2006, to Israel's abhorrence, and is probably in a position to replicate this success in the West Bank, the only inhibiting factors being considerations of political expediency and Israel's effective counterinsurgency measures. It can likewise obtain peace and quiet for its Gaza subjects at any given moment if it stops the rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages and sends no "holy warriors" to blow themselves up among Israeli civilians.

Nor is Israel in a position to reach "a street deal," given the steady erosion of its deterrent prowess since the Oslo years, and especially after the hurried flight from south Lebanon on May 24, 2000, which was instrumental in triggering the so-called "al-Aqsa Intifada" and in inaugurating Hizbullah's military buildup, and numerous provocations, along Israel's northern border, that culminated in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. This war, and the thousands of rockets raining down on Israel's southern localities during the past eight years, despite countless Israeli threats of harsh retribution, afford a foretaste of Palestinian and Arab abidance by a "peace of the thugs."

Above all, not only is the destruction of Israel not a bargaining chip, it is the heart of the matter. Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, sees the struggle for Palestine as neither an ordinary political dispute between two contending nations (Israelis and Palestinians), nor even as a struggle for national self-determination by an indigenous population against a foreign occupier. Rather, it sees Palestine as but one battle in a worldwide holy war to prevent the fall of a part of the House of Islam to infidels. In the words of Mahmoud Zahar: "Islamic and traditional views reject the notion of establishing an independent Palestinian state....In the past, there was no independent Palestinian state....[Hence], our main goal is to establish a great Islamic state, be it pan-Arabic or pan-Islamic."

Hamas' charter not only promises that "Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it," but presents the organization as the "spearhead and vanguard of the circle of struggle against World Zionism [and] the fight against the warmongering Jews." The document even incites anti-Semitic murder, arguing that "the Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.'"

There's more. According to its charter, Hamas was established not merely to "liberate Palestine from Zionist occupation" or to wipe out Jews, but to pursue the far loftier goals of spreading Allah's holy message and defending the "oppressed" throughout the world: "The Islamic Resistance Movement will spare no effort to implement the truth and abolish evil, in speech and in fact, both here and in any other location where it can reach out and exert influence."

Hamas' extreme belief that a perpetual state of war exists between it and anyone, either Muslim or non-Muslim, who refuses to follow in the path of Allah does not permit it to respect, or compromise with, cultural, religious, and political beliefs that differ from its own. Its commitment to the use of violence as a religious duty means that it will never accept a political arrangement that doesn't fully correspond to its radical precepts. As the movement's slogan puts it: "Allah is [Hamas'] goal, the Prophet its model, the Koran its Constitution, Jihad its path and death for the cause of Allah its most sublime belief."

Hamas certainly sees itself as part of the larger network of jihadi movements struggling with the West. Mahmoud Zahar has expressed the hope that Hamas' victories in Gaza will inspire the mujahideen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, Khaled Mashaal declared in a Damascus mosque in early 2006: "We say this to the West, which does not act reasonably, and does not learn its lessons: by Allah, you will be defeated." He added: "Tomorrow, our nation will sit on the throne of the world." He has lashed out at Western powers for helping the persecuted Christians of East Timor and for opposing Sudan's genocidal campaign in Darfur. Thus, Hamas identifies with global Islamist causes.3

All this raises the question of how a Western diplomatic embrace of Hamas would impact on the larger war on terrorism. Legitimizing a jihadi group of this sort would undoubtedly undermine the broader struggle against Islamism, and deepen the doubts of many people in the Middle East and South Asia about the determination of the West to neutralize the current threat they all face at present.

Hamas is plainly not an organization whose ideology can be integrated into any political process without undermining democracy and poisoning the norms of civil society. Hamas is not interested in peace with Israel; indeed, Mashaal has plainly stated that any tahdiye, or state of calm, is really "a tactic in conducting the struggle."4 Unfortunately for Israelis and Palestinians alike, that is not something the wishful thinking of well-meaning pundits and even former U.S. presidents can change.

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Notes


1. Glenn Kessler, "Mideast Players Differ on Approach to Hamas," Washington Post, March 16, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/15/AR2008031502122.html.

2. Ibid.

3. Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan D. Halevi, "Understanding the Direction of the New Hamas Government: Between Tactical Pragmatism and Al-Qaeda Jihadism," Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 5, No. 22, April 6, 2006, http://www.jcpa.org/brief/brief005-22.htm.

4. "Hamas Chief Sees Truce as a ‘Tactic'," Associated Press, April 27, 2008.


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Professor Efraim Karsh is Head of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Studies at King's College, University of London, and a member of the Board of International Experts of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His most recent book is Islamic Imperialism: A History (Yale University Press, 2007).

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