RAMALLAH (IPS) - At the eleventh hour, just as a permanent ceasefire painfully mediated by the Egyptians after weeks of intensive shuttle diplomacy was about to take effect, Israel suddenly changed its preconditions for a settlement with Hamas.
This has left the Palestinians, especially Gazans, the Egyptians, the Hamas leadership and even some Israeli analysts wondering just what will happen next. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza remains unresolved and the current tentative ceasefire looks increasingly fragile as intermittent violence continues.
IPS spoke to Hamas senior official Dr. Ahmed Yousef, based in Gaza about the stalemate.
IPS: What is your understanding of how the ceasefire should have come into effect?
Ahmed Yousef: It is not only our understanding but also that of the Egyptians, the Israelis prior to their about-face, and the Europeans. After weeks of tough bargaining it was agreed with the Israelis that there would be two stages of negotiations.
The first stage would involve the permanent opening of some of Gaza’s borders and the implementation of a permanent ceasefire. The second stage would revolve around a prisoner swap and the opening of the other border crossings. The Israelis had previously agreed to this.
IPS: What are Israel’s new demands and when did you become aware of these?
AY: Over the weekend we were informed through the Egyptians that Gaza’s border crossings would remain sealed until the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released. We were also informed that a significantly altered prisoner exchange would have to take place first before any border crossings would open or any ceasefire would be agreed to.
IPS: Why do you think the Israelis suddenly changed the preconditions for a permanent ceasefire?
AY: I believe it has a lot to do with the Israeli elections. The Israeli prime minister would like the release of Shalit to be part of his legacy before he steps down in light of the corruption scandal that has clouded his premiership.
It is also likely that incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the matter resolved before he takes office. He doesn’t want to be seen as weak by having negotiated with us. Israel’s sharp swing to the right in the recent elections has also emboldened the Israeli government to be more tough.
IPS: What is Hamas’s standpoint in regard to Israel’s new preconditions?
AY: We will not tolerate Israeli blackmail. Israel believes it is in a position of strength following the Gaza war and that it can dictate terms to us but they are mistaken. We will stand our ground and wait until the Egyptians, other regional leaders and the international community pressure Israel.
Let them be the arbiters of who has reneged on the agreement. Even the Egyptians who normally side with Israel believe the Israelis are responsible for the breakdown in negotiations. Additionally some Israelis are blaming their own government for the state of affairs.
Several senior Israeli intelligence leaders have described the Israeli cabinet’s unanimous decision to link any permanent ceasefire with the release of Shalit as problematic. They also stated that Israel hadn’t shown any signs of the steps it would take to ensure the release of Shalit.
IPS: One of Israel’s new conditions is a change to the list of prisoners who it is prepared to release. Israel has said it will not release some of the prisoners, whom it accuses of murdering Israeli civilians, on your list. Are you prepared to renegotiate the list?
AY: Let’s first be clear that Shalit was no innocent captive. He was an Israeli soldier who aimed and shot his weapon, and probably other armaments, at Palestinian civilians. Furthermore, Israel has imprisoned over 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, many without trial, and many of whom were abducted from their homes at night. They have also been subjected to torture.
I also think if we look at Israel’s recent military assault on Gaza and which side has the blood of more civilians on its hands, it will be apparent that Israel is in no position to pontificate about morality. The world saw what Israel did to Gaza’s civilians.
And no, we will not change our list of prisoners whom we want released in exchange for Shalit.
IPS: You are speaking in fairly tough manner. Can Hamas afford to be so inflexible given Israel’s enormous power both militarily and diplomatically?
AY: Contrary to Israel’s wishes, Hamas has not been weakened. While our infrastructure has been badly destroyed and we have paid a high price in regard to the loss of civilians, we still control Gaza and we are still respected by Gazans.
Furthermore, according to recent opinion polls we have also become more popular in the West Bank, while the popularity of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank, has decreased dramatically.
IPS: How long do you think it could take before there is some kind of political breakthrough?
AY: This I don’t know. Whether it will take weeks or months nobody can say. What I can say, however, is that our patience does have its limits. Israel’s continued closure of the borders is an act of war and we therefore reserve the right to take action in response to this.
IPS: Are you saying that Hamas will start firing rockets again at Israel?
AY: As I’ve just stated we reserve the right to respond to the military attacks that Israel is carrying out against Gaza as well as the continued blockade of the strip which is in itself an act of aggression.
IPS: What do you expect the international community to do?
AY: We believe the international community has a vital role to play and actually the ball is in their court. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is terrible and the world is aware of this. I don’t believe regional, European and even American leaders will stand for the humanitarian situation to deteriorate even further. They are all aware who suddenly changed the rules of the game and they are all responsible for pressuring Israel to live up to its end of the deal.
The alternative is renewed violence and suffering on an even larger scale, something that nobody wants to even contemplate.
IPS: Do you believe that Hamas has itself done all it can to come to some sort of accommodation with Israel?
AY: We had previously offered Israel a long-term tahdia or permanent ceasefire of 20 years. We also twice offered to accept Israel’s existence within the internationally recognized 1967 borders in return for Israel granting Palestinians their rights. Israel ignored these offers.
We also enforced the recent six-month ceasefire to the best of our ability until Israel launched its cross-border military raid into Gaza on 4 November.
The PA in the West Bank has bent over backwards to accommodate Israel and the Israelis continue to build new settlements there.
What more do you want us to do?
All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.