New ceasefire could ease the burden

Palestinian fuel trucks at the Nahal Oz crossing on the border of Israel and the Gaza Strip refuel for Gaza’s power plant hours after an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire went into effect between Hamas and Israel earlier that morning, 19 June 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

CAIRO (IPS) - An Egyptian proposal for a “calming” of hostilities, or tahdia, between Israel and Palestinian resistance faction Hamas officially came into effect Thursday. The deal follows several months of three-way talks between Israeli officials, Palestinian delegations and Egyptian mediators.

“Both sides have pledged to halt all hostilities and all military activities against each other,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki declared.

The deal is aimed at ending a year-long round of violence that has raged since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip last summer, after winning an election in 2006. Since the takeover, more than 400 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed by punishing Israeli military operations in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Resistance factions have responded to the Israeli assaults — which are launched on an almost daily basis — by firing short-range rockets at southern Israeli border towns and settlements. Within the last year, rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have claimed the lives of a handful of Israelis close to the border.

Earlier this week, intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s customary point-man for Israeli-Palestinian mediation, met separately in Cairo with representatives from Hamas and Israel to finalize the agreement.

On Tuesday, Hamas — which had already agreed to the truce terms last month — reiterated its acceptance of the deal. “Hamas will adhere to the timetable [for the multi-phased agreement] set by Egypt,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum announced from Gaza.

The following day, Israel — which had hitherto rejected the offer — also announced its readiness to implement the ceasefire. “Israel is giving a serious chance to this Egyptian initiative and we want it to succeed,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told reporters.

According to the terms of the arrangement, Israel will halt all military operations in the Gaza Strip. In return, Hamas, along with other smaller resistance factions, will refrain from staging rocket attacks on targets in Israel.

The ceasefire, however, will initially apply only to the Gaza Strip. In the event that the truce holds, it will be extended to the West Bank — governed by the US-backed Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — after a six-month period.

The deal also calls for the gradual reopening of border crossings into and out of the Gaza Strip, hermetically sealed by Israel — with Egyptian complicity — for the last year. This includes the flashpoint Rafah terminal, which represents the sole crossing along Egypt’s 14-kilometer border with the beleaguered territory.

The longstanding siege of the strip has deprived its roughly 1.5 million inhabitants of most basic necessities — including food and medicine — and largely destroyed the territory’s modest economy.

Israel officials say that, if the ceasefire holds, shipments of basic goods will be allowed into Gaza on Sunday.

The agreement also includes a commitment from Cairo to step up efforts to thwart alleged weapons-smuggling operations across its border with the Gaza Strip. Israel has long claimed that arms smuggled across the border end up in the hands of Palestinian fighters, although Egyptian officials say the allegations are exaggerated.

Once established, the ceasefire is expected to be followed by talks aimed at securing the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian resistance factions two years ago. Although Egyptian efforts aimed at brokering a prisoner swap have been ongoing since 2006, they have failed to produce a breakthrough.

Many Egyptian commentators see Israel’s sudden turnaround on the ceasefire proposal as a victory for Hamas. Previously, Israeli officials had insisted that any deal must also include Shalit’s immediate release.

“Israel’s acceptance of the tahdia is proof that Hamas is in the ascendant, both militarily and in terms of its rising popular support among the Palestinians,” Magdi Hussein, political analyst and head of Egypt’s frozen Socialist Labour Party, told IPS.

“It’s an admission by Israel that the extirpation of the resistance by force — by way of a massive assault of Gaza — is not a realistic option,” added Hussein.

Official commentators, meanwhile, were jubilant, saying the deal could — under optimal circumstances — pave the way for a final settlement of the perennial Arab-Israeli conflict.

“The tahdia is only the first step,” Mohammed Bassyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and current head of the Shura Council’s committee for Arab affairs, told IPS. “It will eventually be followed by dialogue between Hamas and Fatah, then negotiations aimed at clinching the big prize — the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Bassyouni went on to express optimism over the ceasefire’s short-term prospects.

“We expect both Israel and Hamas to fully respect the terms of the agreement,” he said. “After all, it’s in the interest of both sides: the Palestinians will end the siege of Gaza and the Israelis will stop the rockets on their southern cities.”

Other local commentators, however, were less sanguine.

“I fear the tahdia will soon be broken — most likely by the Israelis,” Abdelaziz Shadi, political science professor and coordinator of the Israeli studies program at Cairo University told IPS. “There are powerful forces within the Israeli right wing that have made no secret of their contempt for the agreement.”

“What’s more, Israeli parliamentary elections are coming up,” added Shadi. “And this is when Israeli political factions of all stripes vie with one another in calling for the most extreme policies against the Arabs.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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