Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Gaza Ceasefire

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Update from AIJAC

June 20, 2008
Number 06/08 #05

This Update looks at the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas which came into effect in Gaza on Thursday. It was agreed to by both Israel and Hamas through the Egyptian mediators, meaning the sides did not actually talk to each other. There is now much debate over whether the ceasefire is good for Israel and the peace process or whether it represents a victory for Hamas and their terrorist tactics, and whether it will hold and lead to a prolonged period of calm, or whether it will collapse and lead to more bloodshed.

The first piece, from the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), sets out the actual terms of the ceasefire and analyses what each side - Israel, Hamas and Fatah - gains and loses from the agreement, concluding that each side has strong motivation for making the initiative succeed. To read this useful backgrounder, CLICK HERE.

Yoel Marcus of Haaretz recognises there are dangers that the ceasefire may just lead to further problems in allowing Hamas to regroup. He argues, however, that the only alternative way for Israel to stop the rocket and mortar attacks is for a large-scale incursion into Gaza that would involve both a lengthy stay and the strong possibility of multiple casualties, both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians. In his opinion, the ceasefire is by far the better option, and may lead to further periods of calm. On the other hand, if the incursion does ultimately prove necessary, at least the international community will know Israel tried the peaceful route. To read his support for the ceasefire, CLICK HERE.

On the other hand, Michael Oren of the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem, writing in the Wall Street Journal, regards the ceasefire as a victory for Hamas and its major backer, Iran. He argues that Hamas won simply by not losing in the face of Israeli efforts to stop the rockets and mortars, and the ceasefire represents a confirmation of its victory. He fears that, ultimately, the ceasefire will allow Iran, through its proxies, to completely encircle Israel with enemies. For his pessimistic outlook, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:


BICOM Analysis: The Gaza ceasefire – small opportunity amidst growing threats

19/6/2008

Egyptian sources announced on Tuesday a ceasefire agreement that will facilitate the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip. Israel has officially confirmed that it will come into effect on Thursday morning, 6:00 am Israel time. Head of the Israeli Defence Ministry's military-political bureau, Amos Gilead, travelled to Cairo on Tuesday night for the second time this week to finalise the deal.

In the context of the agreement, several questions require close attention: what is the nature of the proposed agreement and what will it include? Does this reflect any change in Israel's policy towards Hamas? What are the gains hoped to be made by the different parties? How does this affect internal Palestinian politics, how does this agreement reflect broader regional developments and how may it affect these processes?

The Egyptian-brokered agreement: terms and details

The ceasefire is between two sides, neither of whom recognises the other's legitimacy. The Egyptian-brokered agreement therefore constitutes a series of unofficial understandings between the sides, which will be founded on a mutual suspension of offensive activities. In this sense, the agreement will in fact constitute a lull in hostilities, referred to in Arabic as a ‘tahdiya', whose durability will ultimately depend on the sides' ability to implement the terms of the agreement:

Suspension of hostilities

Hamas will be expected to ensure that all the Palestinian factions operating in the Gaza Strip - including Islamic Jihad to the smaller, clan-affiliated groups - will halt all rocket fire, mortar and sniper attacks against Israeli targets. At the same time, the IDF will be instructed to halt all ground and air operations against terror targets in the Gaza Strip. In the first stage, the agreement will be applicable only to the Gaza areas and will not include the West Bank; at a future time, the agreement may apply to the West Bank.

Relaxation of restrictions on Gaza's border crossings

The agreement will lead immediately to an increase in the humanitarian aid and other products entering Gaza from Israel, including food, clothing and building materials. Assuming the agreement takes hold successfully, a more extensive set of arrangements, relating also to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, will come onto the table.

The success of the agreement beyond the first few days will depend heavily on Israel's satisfaction with two other aspects of the deal. Firstly, Israel needs to see early and significant progress towards a deal to bring about the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit's family received another sign of life from Shalit a week ago and the Israeli government cannot be seen to be relegating the issue.

Negotiations over a prisoner exchange deal are scheduled to begin three days after the ceasefire takes effect. If residents of Israel's south are allowed to return to some normal routine after long months of ongoing rocket threats, the difficult step of releasing convicted terrorists in return for Shalit may be easier for the Israeli government and public. As it stands, Israel has already agreed to some of the prisoners listed by Hamas for release and may be willing to further compromise to see Shalit's safe return after almost two years in Gaza.

The second issue regards the ongoing smuggling carried out between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Mostly using underground tunnels, terror organisations have been able to smuggle large amounts of weapons, ammunition, money and operatives. Understanding that it will be impossible to force the cessation of smuggling through the current agreement, Israel is focusing its efforts on the Egyptian leadership. Further progress on opening the crossing points will depend on Israel's intelligence assessment that weapons smuggling into the Strip has been substantially reduced.

This issue is of special significance given the possible opening of the Rafah crossing. The crossing has been largely closed since June 2006, when EU monitors manning the crossing fled the site after coming under fire during clashes between Hamas and Fatah. Until sufficient arrangements are made for the strict monitoring of goods and people going through the crossing, Israel fears Hamas and other organisations will use its opening for large-scale smuggling of weapons and operatives.

In sum, the brokered agreement will not provide solutions to all the problems involved in the tense situation in the Gaza Strip, nor does it intend to. Its main purpose is to provide a cessation of violence, and only after this fundamental condition is met will further issues be addressed.

Gains and losses: assessing the consequences of the current agreement

Although the agreement involves Israel and the Palestinian factions, it is also likely to have significant effect on broader regional aspects. The following looks briefly at the considerations that led the sides during the negotiations and the possible consequences it may have on their future steps.

Israel

Israel continues to face an ongoing dilemma with regards to the appropriate approach towards Palestinian aggression emanating from the Gaza Strip. Israel has an interest in finding a peaceful solution for Gaza and to provide its residents with hope for the future. This logic formed part of the plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, as there was much optimism that this withdrawal would provide an opportunity for significant improvement for life in Gaza. However, terrorists have exploited this situation and have used it to establish unprecedented control. This, in turn, was translated into ongoing terror attacks, which made use of a large ballistic arsenal against Israeli communities. The situation deteriorated further after the Hamas takeover in June 2006.

Knowing it cannot abandon its population to the threat of rockets, mortar shells and sniper fire, Israel has tried a wide range of tactics against terror infrastructure and operatives in the Strip in an attempt to suppress the rocket fire.  An extended military operation triggered by the kidnap of Shalit came to an end in November 2006, and the use of artillery aimed at the source of rocket attacks was abandoned due to the undue risk it presented to Gaza's civilian population. Since then, Israel has been using limited ground operations and air strikes. However, the government faces pressure from large sections of the public and the political establishment to consider a large-scale ground operation to confront the terror activities over an extended period of time. Yet an operation of this sort would be costly in human life on both sides, has limited potential to curb the ballistic threat and has no clear exit strategy at this stage.

Furthermore, sources in Jerusalem are convinced that if the current agreement collapses as a result of a dramatic provocation from Hamas, the grounds for such an operation will be more acceptable to the international community and criticism less harsh.

Hamas

Hamas has its own interest in reaching a ceasefire at this point. Most importantly, the agreement fortifies their control of the Gaza Strip and solidifies the situation that began in June 2006, when the organisation took control of the area. By doing so, Hamas is able to maintain its grip on the Strip while Fatah and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas watch from the West Bank.

Hamas will do everything possible to use this development to enhance its popularity in the Palestinian street, both in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas draws popularity from its image as the authentic ‘resistance' to the occupation. A ceasefire deal with Israel therefore poses a risk to its public image within the territories and it will do its best to spin the development as a military triumph in which they were able to force Israel into a ceasefire and deter an invasion. They will be in a strong position to claim the ceasefire as a success if the agreement does indeed lead to a significant relaxation of restrictions on border crossings.

Fatah and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas

One of the main factors holding Israel back from a ceasefire deal with Hamas has been the fear that such an agreement will undermine the Fatah movement and PA Chairman Abbas. Until recently, Hamas and Fatah have been in fierce rivalry and Israel's strategy has been to bolster Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas and isolate Hamas. However, channels of communication between Fatah and Hamas have reopened in recent weeks, making it easier for Israel to attempt to find an arrangement.

However, Israel remains committed to the position that it will condition any substantive contacts with Hamas on its adoption of the Quartet principles - recognition of Israel, cessation of violence and recognition of previous Israel-PA agreements.

Conclusion

Both Israel and Hamas are playing delicate balancing games. However, the motivation on both sides for a period of calm is strong. Whatever the broader consequences for regional and local forces, its fundamental aim is to return life in Israel's southern regions and in the Gaza Strip to normal. Israel is taking a risk by lifting some of the military and financial pressure placed on Hamas in the past months. If Hamas abuses this opportunity, the leadership in Jerusalem will face a clear demand from the public to take firm action to provide security to its citizens, with a military option at hand.

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A gun in act one

By Yoel Marcus

Haaretz,  June 20

I am not sure why our media and politicians are using the Arabic word tahadiyeh instead of calling the baby by its name. No matter how you look at the agreement taking shape between Israel and Hamas, it boils down to a "truce" in plain English and a "cease-fire" in plainer English. The image that comes to mind is of two boxers in a clinch, leaning on one another, sweaty and exhausted, until the referee comes and pulls them apart.

When one of the founders of Kibbutz Nahal Oz writes a letter to Haaretz saying that "as of now, Hamas is the victor in the western Negev," he is articulating the feelings of many residents of the south. It is hard to digest the idea that a terrorist organization has been shelling Israeli cities for the last seven years, and Israel has been helpless to stop the daily assault on its home front. A cynic might wonder what good our nuclear option is when we cannot even stop primitive rockets from turning the lives of our southern residents into hell.

Israeli security forces have struck Hamas and the inhabitants of Gaza hard, with targeted assassinations and sanctions on food, fuel and electricity. It seemed clear that Israel would embark on a major offensive and go deep into Gaza sooner or later. We have experience in operations on that scale under our belts, although we tend to remember them more for the bloody toll on our side than for any glorious victory. For a regular army to make mincemeat of terrorist gangs is not that easy.

Nevertheless, for the leaders of Hamas, Israel's threat of a major campaign was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. They worried about their loss of support in a besieged Gaza suffering from hunger and physical devastation. The last thing they wanted was for our leaders to go berserk and sic the Israel Defense Forces on them in their eagerness to restore Israel's power of deterrence.

Egypt, fearful of the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood on its own turf, is hardly alone in wanting to see Hamas stopped. At the same time, Israel has rightly weighed the possibility that a major military offensive could fail. There may be detailed blueprints for a Gaza incursion, but the unexpected can happen even with the smartest of plans. It would be enough for one company commander to flub up and turn left instead of right, getting dozens of soldiers killed, to wreck the entire campaign. And with the overcrowding in Gaza, all you need is one girls' school collapsing with everyone inside for the world to insist on an end to the operation before the work is done.

Anyone who claims there is a military solution for pushing back the rocket launchers without a protracted stay in Gaza does not know what he is talking about. But a lengthy presence, even partial, in the Gaza Strip could turn into a copy of the First Lebanon War, where our soldiers became sitting ducks, targets of roadside bombs and ambushes, for 18 years.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak had enough sense not to reject the initiative for a six-month cease-fire out of hand. He is right when he says that Hamas is there and is not going to evaporate. Opponents of the truce worry that if Israel opens the border crossings, the cease-fire will enable Hamas to regroup and tiptoe toward the Hamasization of the whole Gaza Strip. These are formidable dangers, but in principle, even an imperfect calm is better than an imperfect military campaign.

Obviously, a cease-fire does not solve the problem. Hamas will take advantage of it to stockpile arms, but it is doing that anyway. It already has tens of thousands of missiles. On the other hand, Israel will also use the time - to install shelters and other protective measures in front-line communities, and to shore up cities deep inside the country, just in case.

This period of calm will be measured by what the two sides make of it. To the global community, a situation in which Hamas says yes to a lull in hostilities and Israel says no would be incomprehensible. A cease-fire is not a sign of weakness, but of mutual interest. If it holds up, the possibility of it continuing beyond six months is not inconceivable.

Hamas is in trouble: Its leaders are afraid for their lives and afraid of losing the support of the people of Gaza. Israel has its share of troubles, too: It is in desperate need of a government to replace the current one, headed by a prime minister under criminal investigation who can neither make war nor peace without someone suspecting his motives.

If this six-month lull, or cease-fire, holds up, it is certainly possible that the two sides will want to extend it for another "term." At the moment, this is more wishful thinking than anything else. But we are being given an opportunity to chill out and put critical military decisions on hold.

Anton Chekhov had a rule: If you hang a gun on the wall in Act I, you must use it by Act III. That applies beyond the theater. The success of this cease-fire will be determined by whether the gun is allowed to rust peacefully on the wall after the six months are up.

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Israel's Truce With Hamas Is a Victory for Iran

By MICHAEL B. OREN

The Wall Street Journal Online  June 19, 2008

Proponents of an Israeli-Palestinian accord are praising the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that went into effect this morning. Yet even if the agreement suspends violence temporarily -- though dozens of Hamas rockets struck Israel yesterday -- it represents a historic accomplishment for the jihadist forces most opposed to peace, and defeat for the Palestinians who might still have been Israel's partners.

The roots of this tragedy go back to the summer of 2005 and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The evacuation, intended to free Israel of Gaza's political and strategic burden, was hailed as a victory by Palestinian terrorist groups, above all Hamas.

Hamas proceeded to fire some 1,000 rocket and mortar shells into Israel. Six months later Hamas gunmen, taking advantage of an earlier cease-fire, infiltrated into Israel, killed two soldiers, and captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

Hamas's audacity spurred Hezbollah to mount a similar ambush against Israelis patrolling the Lebanese border, triggering a war in which Israel was once again humbled. Hamas now felt sufficiently emboldened to overthrow Gaza's Fatah-led government, and to declare itself regnant in the Strip. Subsequently, Hamas launched thousands more rocket and mortar salvos against Israel, rendering parts of the country nearly uninhabitable.

In response, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) air strikes and limited ground incursions killed hundreds of armed Palestinians in Gaza, and Israel earned international censure for collateral civilian deaths and "disproportionate" tactics. Israel also imposed a land and sea blockade of Gaza, strictly controlling its supply of vital commodities such as a gasoline. But the policy enabled Hamas to hoard the fuel and declare a humanitarian crisis.

Israel never mounted the rolling, multi-month operation that the IDF had planned. Traumatized by his abortive performance in the Lebanon War, hobbled by financial scandals, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert balked at a military engagement liable to result in incalculable casualties and United Nations condemnations, but unlikely to halt Hamas aggression.

Like Hezbollah in 2006, Hamas won because it did not lose. Its leaders still walked Gaza's streets freely while children in Sderot and other Israeli border towns cowered in bomb shelters. Like Hezbollah, which recently wrested unprecedented powers from the Lebanese parliament, Hamas parlayed its military success into political capital.

The European Parliament demanded the immediate lifting of the Gaza blockade, and France initiated secret contacts with Hamas officials. A minister from the Israeli Labor Party, Ami Ayalon, went a step further by calling for Hamas's inclusion in peace talks -- a recommendation soon echoed by Jimmy Carter and the New York Times.

The Egyptian-brokered cease-fire yields Hamas greater benefits than it might have obtained in direct negotiations. In exchange for giving its word to halt rocket attacks and weapons smuggling, Hamas receives the right to monitor the main border crossings into Gaza and to enforce a truce in the West Bank, where Fatah retains formal control.

If quiet is maintained, then Israel will be required to accept a cease-fire in the West Bank as well. The blockade will be incrementally lifted while Cpl. Shalit remains in captivity. Hamas can regroup and rearm.

The Olmert government will have to go vast lengths to portray this arrangement as anything other than a strategic and moral defeat. Hamas initiated a vicious war against Israel, destroyed and disrupted myriad Israeli lives, and has been rewarded with economic salvation and international prestige.

Tellingly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who once declared Hamas illegal, will soon travel to Gaza for reconciliation talks. Mr. Abbas's move signifies the degree to which Hamas, with Israel's help, now dominates Palestinian politics. It testifies, moreover, to another Iranian triumph.

As the primary sponsor of Hamas, Iran is the cease-fire's ultimate beneficiary. Having already surrounded Israel on three of its borders -- Gaza, Lebanon, Syria -- Iran is poised to penetrate the West Bank. By activating these fronts, Tehran can divert attention from its nuclear program and block any diplomatic effort.

The advocates of peace between Israelis and Palestinians should recognize that fact when applauding quiet at any price. The cost of this truce may well be war.

Mr. Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is the author of "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present" (Norton, 2008).

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