The current situation is dominated by talk of a short-term ceasefire (tahadiyeh) between Hamas and Israel. Negotiations for a ceasefire do not involve direct contact between Israel and Hamas. It is the Egyptians who are relating to both sides aiming at a six-month cessation of hostilities. They have a vested interest in preventing Hamas being pushed more and more towards extreme groups like Al Qaeda. There were also rumours of a Hamas intention to breach the wall between Gaza and Egypt again, which led to heightened Egyptian security.
Israel is concerned that Hamas will be unable to control smaller terrorist groups such asIslamic Jihad in a ceasefire. Palestinians claim that eleven such groups have agreed to the ceasefire in principle. Under the agreement, Israel would maintain the ceasefire even if there were terror attacks in the West Bank or Israel. Hamas want the ceasefire to include the West Bank, at least in the near future. Israel would also re-open the Rafah crossing between Gazaand Israel, together with crossings for goods vehicles.
Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas Prime Minister says the organisation is ready to offer a long-term ceasefire (hudna) if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders and allows a Palestinian state with itscapital in Jerusalem and a right of return for Palestinian refugees. This creates seriousproblems for Israel. Hamas refuses, however, to recognize Israel as a legitimate state.
FEARS & ADVANTAGES There are, of course, fears in Israel that a temporary ceasefire will simply allow Hamas breathing space to strengthen its position in Gaza and its ability to attack Israel. However it is also clear that Hamas has managed to keep up a steady campaign against Israel without a ceasefire. There is also concern that such a ceasefire could strengthen Hamas at the expense of the (Fatah) Palestinian President and negotiator Mahmoud Abbas.
One advantage for Israel is that a ceasefire would allow the re-opening of the Gaza crossings. The very negative effects of the Israeli sanctions on Gaza on the population have been condemned around the world. The United Nations‘ Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that lack of fuel will prevent distribution of food to 650,000 refugees, disrupt 214 schools and 19 health clinics. Hospitals have only a few days worth of fuel. Inoculationsfor 55,000 babies are threatened. Council rubbish collection has ceased.
Israel claims that Hamas itself is preventing the limited amount of fuel coming out of Israelfrom reaching the Gaza population, so creating an economic crisis for propaganda purposes, but Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups call on Israel to stop restricting fuel supplies. Such a situation affecting one third of the Palestinian population militates against the Israel-Fatah peace negotiations. A ceasefire would also be very welcome in the constantly bombarded Israeli town of Sderot and the western Negev region of Israel.
A few days ago Miyasar Abu Muatak and her four children Salah, 4, Musad, 18 months, Hanaa, 3, and Rudeynah, 6, sat down to breakfast when two Israeli missiles landed nearby and they were all killed. The IDF claims that the missiles didn’t directly cause the deaths but that they detonated bombs being carried by militants.
Some people in Israel, including Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, are critical of Israel’spotential agreement as legitimizing Hamas. However former US President Jimmy Carter made a very controversial visit to the region, meeting up with Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, in Damascus. He maintains that Israel must talk to everyone.
It must also be remembered that Hamas have been trying to improve their image in the West. They hired a media consultant who has helped them to portray themselves as a legitimate resistance movement, forced to attack Israel because of Palestinian suffering. However anti-Israel terrorism continues and a number of Israelis have been killed in the last few weeks, including two civilians at the Nahal Oz fuel terminal through which Israel provides Gaza with fuel. Three IDF soldiers were ambushed and killed in Gaza. Rocket and mortar attacks have also continued. Israeli intelligence forces anticipate attacks before Israel’s 60th Independence Day on May 18th.
Israel plans to approve employment of an extra 5000 Palestinian construction workers and it has re-opened the border after terrorist attacks to allow some trucks and some fuel oil through. The IDF is investigating allegations that 46 Palestinians were detained for no reason for 16 hours at a check point and their car tyres were punctured. They were not allowed to sit down or use toilet facilities.
The expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank continues to hinder the peace process. Mahmoud Abbas asked President George W. Bush to take action to discourage this. Another hindrance is 500 IDF roadblocks on the West Bank which Israel has not yet removed. A joint Israeli-Palestinian report claims that ten such roadblocks have little security value and are unnecessarily hindering Palestinian trade. The group behind the report included Palestinian officials, American experts and two IDF reserve officers who work in the West Bank Civil Administration.
Contact between Israel and Arab states continues. Qatar urged Israel to end the “crippling blockade of Gaza due to the difficult humanitarian situation” and to speed up the peace talkswith the Palestinians. Oman also has re-established relations with Israel. Meetings have taken place with Bahrein and United Aran Emirates too.
PEACE TALKS WITH SYRIA?
The other prominent factor on the scene currently is the possibility of talks between Israel and Syria, which are supported by all three candidates in the US Presidential election. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is reported to be willing to consider returning the Golan Heights to Syria. The Syrian Foreign Minister has said that if Israel is serious about this then that would remove the barriers to talks. But he also called for Israel to make a written commitment to withdraw asa condition of talks, which is a problem for Israel. Another call he made was for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders for the sake of a Palestinian state. Syria, however, has said it will not break off relations with Iran for the sake of talking with Israel.
David Tal, Head of the Israel Knesset House Committeee says the Golan should not be returned without a national referendum and he has created a bill to that effect. Some Israelisfear the advance of Hezbollah into the Golan, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, if the area isreturned to Syria. A recent survey discovered that only 32% of Israelis favour a full withdrawal from the Golan (amongst Jewish Israelis it is 25%). 74% don’t believe Assad is serious about peace.
The Americans decided to reveal the reason for the mysterious Israeli air strike in Syria on September 6th. They say it was on a nuclear reactor being built to produce plutonium with the help of the North Koreans, though the Syrians have denied this. The Americans made thisrevelation to pressurize North Korea into an agreement over nuclear weapons and as a warning to the Iranians.
Contacts between Israel and Syria began after the Lebanon war in 2006. Syrian President Assad said that Turkey has acted as a mediator since April 2007.
1. That there may be a successful ceasefire between Hamas and Israel which will facilitate the peace process.
2. For the people of Gaza, with Israel’s help, to be released from they serious economic problems which they face and to realise that peace is the best way forward, and to influence the Hamas government accordingly.
3. For Israel to be serious about the peace process, to curb settlement expansion and remove all unnecessary roadblocks.
4. For successful talks between Israel and Syria so that the threat of serious military conflict will recede.