Third Intifada in sight
With political negotiations going nowhere, Hamas is preparing to unleash mass popular action to end the Gaza siege and reconfigure the strategic balance with Israel, writes Saleh Al-Naami
It is sometimes difficult for Ghazi Hamad, former spokesperson of the dismissed Ismail Haniyeh government, to recall all the international parties that have taken an interest in mediating between Palestinian factions -- and also between Hamas and Israel -- in order to reach an agreement resulting in a ceasefire and a lifting of the siege on Gaza. The Norwegians, Germans, British, Turks and South Africans, in addition to traditional Arab parties, are all enthusiastic about landing such an agreement, though Egypt seems the most committed. This level of interest, however, has not yet succeeded in breaking the political deadlock or mitigating the humanitarian disaster created by Israel.
"The Hamas movement conveyed its vision of a comprehensive agreement to several foreign diplomats so that they could convey this vision to Israel. Yet all indicators show that Israel has not exhibited any enthusiasm for treating this vision in a positive manner," Hamad told Al-Ahram Weekly. Undeterred, Hamas is intensifying its initiative efforts in order to embarrass Israel and is exposing it as a party intent on maintaining tension. At the same time, protest activity within the movement against the siege is growing, climaxing recently in the organisation of a global day for breaking the siege observed in 90 countries and the organisation of the world's longest human chain, at 40 kilometres long, stretching from the north to the south of the Gaza Strip.
Hamas sources stress that the combination of political initiatives and protest activities is a necessary precursor to "dramatic steps" Hamas is planning to take should the siege continue. They point out that Hamas realises all too well that the chances of Israel agreeing to its proposals are near zero, and that Hamas is planning to lead the Gazan people to the border with Israel and cross it. The idea is that this would shake the foundations on which Israeli propaganda rests, especially regarding its siege on Gaza.
Sources have further indicated that among the political steps taken, Hamas has submitted proposals for a comprehensive agreement to one British diplomat and to Omar Suleiman, chief of Egyptian General Intelligence. This proposal contains the following points:
- A mutual ceasefire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, on which basis Israel must halt assassinations, invasions and arrests, and resistance movements must halt firing rockets on Israeli settlements near the Gaza Strip.
- A lifting of the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip since mid-June of last year, including a re- opening of border and commercial crossings, and foremost the Rafah border crossing.
- Completion of the prisoner swap deal by which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would be released in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners named by Hamas.
Hamas sources have confirmed that in order to give its proposal more weight, Hamas met with representatives of all other resistance movements active in the Gaza Strip and reached an agreement to halt the launching of rockets on Israeli settlements should Israel agree to stop assassinations and lift the siege. In particular, Hamas rushed to inform the Egyptian government about this agreement.
Ayman Taha, a prominent Hamas leader, says that Hamas and the other Palestinian resistance movements have proven in the past their ability to respect ceasefire agreements. An example is the truce reached in February 2005, when the Palestinian resistance factions remained fully committed to halting their operations despite the fact that Israel continued its campaign against resistance activists in the West Bank. In a threatening tone, Taha warned that his movement would not allow conditions to remain as they presently are in Gaza. "Whoever thinks for a moment that we can accept for our children to die this way due to the siege and remain silent is kidding themselves," he told the Weekly. "We have expressed our desire for a truce in order to take away Israel's excuses for perpetuating the siege, but if they ignore our proposals, we are certainly able to annul the rules of the game in a way that would surprise everyone."
Despite agreeing with Hamas to comply to any truce should Israel sign on to it, the Islamic Jihad movement has taken a more extreme position, refusing to halt resistance operations in return only for a lifting of the siege. Khaled Al-Butsh, a prominent leader in the movement, told the Weekly, "we will not exchange our right to resist for food and medicine. The resistance is tied to the presence of the occupation on the Palestinian territories." Yet Al-Butsh points out that his movement will agree to a truce if Israel commits to halting operations throughout occupied Palestine, although he doesn't believe that it will.
The Israeli government, for its part, has hastened to reject the proposals of Hamas. It claims that Hamas is trying to buy time in order to strengthen its forces. The Israeli government has further clarified that Israel cannot agree to tie its army's operations in Gaza to those in the West Bank, and stresses the right of its security agencies to continue operations aimed to "thwart terrorist operations".
Indeed, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon told Hebrew language Israeli radio Sunday that, "we must not grant Hamas's proposals any interest, because this movement wants a ceasefire for a limited period in order to exploit it to increase its weapons and be able to confront us more violently later. Hamas leaders are planning to repeat the experience of South Lebanon in the Gaza Strip, and we must not enable them to do so." Israeli Interior Minister Avi Dichter said that Hamas's proposals are "more dangerous than they first appear... "directing a mortal blow to both [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad," and "pulling the curtain on any possibility of reaching an agreement that secures the strategic interests of the state of Israel."
Israel has not sufficed with simply rejecting the truce proposals. Rather, it has intensified its operations against the Palestinian resistance by sending its most elite military units into the confrontation arena in Gaza. Israeli army leaders have admitted that most of the special units in the Israeli army are engaged in daily confrontations with resistance movements in the Strip. The use of special units comes in lieu of a full blown invasion which so far, though plans have been drawn up and approved, has been set aside for Israeli public relations fears that the negative consequences of such a campaign would outweigh the positive consequences, from Israel's perspective.
In the Palestinian arena, some are criticising Hamas, and in particular its interest in truce initiatives. Nihad Al-Sheikh Khalil, a prominent Palestinian researcher, warns that Israel sees these proposals as "indicators of weakness calling for continued Israeli pressure on the Gaza Strip". Khalil points out that Israel treats "the Palestinians and Arabs with a sense of extreme superiority, and it wants the Palestinians to halt their resistance at the same time that it continues its siege on them." Khalil holds that the social and political mobilisation of the Palestinian street is capable of achieving more than any truce proposal.
Khalil asserts that the Palestinian people is currently on the verge of a third Intifada, not because of the siege imposed on Gaza but rather because of the failure of the negotiations process and the Palestinian people's realisation that President Abbas's programme has been a major setback for the Palestinian cause. The letter of resignation that Ibrahim Ibrash, culture minister in the Fayyad government, sent to Abbas made reference to this fact.