Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 March 2008
Issue No. 888
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Bulls-eye brings a breather

Only a desperate suicide attack on Zionism's nerve centre shook some sense into Olmert, reports Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, a tacit ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was holding in the Gaza Strip for the fifth consecutive day. The informal calm brings to an end a fortnight of an orgy of murder by the Israeli army, with over 120 Palestinians killed, including numerous children and babies, followed by a daring attack by a lone Palestinian fighter on the ideological headquarters of religious Zionism, known as Merkaz Harav, in West Jerusalem, where eight student-settlers were killed and several others wounded.

The shocking scenes of death and maiming in Gaza last week, coupled with the equally shocking absence of any meaningful international condemnation of Israel, seemed to have convinced Hamas and other Palestinian resistance factions that it was illogical to ask the world to stop Israel's deadly attacks on Gazans without halting rocket attacks originating from Gaza onto nearby Israeli settlements, especially Sderot and Ashkelon.

These attacks, in which primitive homemade rockets were used, have killed and injured only a few Israelis and inflicted minor, even negligible damage.

However, Israel, using a potent propaganda machine extending from Sydney to California, has utilised them to the fullest, giving a false impression that Israel was the victim in its war against the Gazans, and that the totally unprotected, hermetically blockaded and nearly decimated Palestinians were the aggressors.

Similarly, the attack on Merkaz Harav, which is viewed as the central nervous system of the Jewish settlement movement, shocked the Israeli government, especially the upper echelons of the political-military establishment. After all, Merkaz Harav represents the soul of Zionism, the symbol of Greater Israel and religious messianic Jewish nationalism.

The attack, carried out by a young Palestinian from East Jerusalem whose political affiliation remains a mystery, showed that Israel can't declare open season on the Palestinians in Gaza and remain immune to deadly retaliation. It also showed that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians can't be decided by military means alone.

What is significant though is that the attack on Merkaz Harav was an 11th hour warning to the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the continued onslaught against Gaza, coupled with threats by some of his cabinet ministers to carry out a holocaust against the Palestinians, was bound to boomerang and possibly bring about the collapse of his government.

Olmert seems to have calculated that though the increasingly jingoistic Israeli public withstood one attack, it might not withstand other similar attacks without taking to the streets and demanding new general elections that may very well see the victory of Benyamin Netanyahu, the extremist leader of the Likud Party.

Hence, it is quite possible that Olmert has calculated that a ceasefire with Hamas, even if undeclared or tacit, is vital for the political survival of his increasingly fragile government.

Moreover, according to reliable sources in Ramallah, the American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Israel to refrain from carrying out "a retaliation" against Hamas, as if the killing by Israel of 120 Palestinians in one week was not enough. Rice reportedly argued that more Israeli attacks on Gaza would inevitably invite more Palestinian retaliation, which could very well lead to the collapse of the Olmert government and with it the likely collapse of all American efforts to reach a final political settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before the end of 2008.

Interestingly, neither Israel nor Hamas have acknowledged the reality of a ceasefire, tacit or otherwise. However, both sides have carefully stated that they would refrain from initiating new hostilities if the other side maintained the calm. There seems to be a mutual propensity to observe a period of calm, the duration depending entirely on circumstances. The term which observers are using to describe what's happening is tahdia, an Arabic word meaning calm and caution.

Israeli Defence Minister Barak, who has been accused of masterminding the latest escalation for political reasons, namely to enhance his chances for becoming Israel's prime minister, said "the fighting is ongoing, will continue and will at times increase or decrease."

He added that, "there is not at this point any agreement. But if today people go to school in Ashkelon without rockets, I wouldn't propose complaining about any quiet day, but at any moment in which we need to act, we will." A senior government official reiterated, "if the rocket fire stops completely, so will IDF operations in Gaza."

For Hamas's part, its spokesman Sami Abu Zhuri pointed out that, "no comprehensive ceasefire had been reached." He added though that Hamas leaders were welcoming Egyptian efforts to secure a truce.

Hamas is already viewing the calm as a political and moral victory, arguing that a certain balance of terror has been established between Israel, a nuclear superpower, and Hamas, a small organisation, with a few thousand irregulars equipped with mostly light weapons.

Hamas also believes that Israel's tacit acceptance of the de facto ceasefire, however uncertain and short-living it may be, shows that Israel is abandoning its erstwhile designs to topple Hamas by way of launching an all-out war on the Gaza Strip. "Israel has realised that Hamas is a hard number it can't ignore. I think the Americans and the Europeans are also coming to this conclusion," said Hamas's spokesman Mushir Al-Masri.

For its part, the PA leadership in Ramallah, while publicly welcoming the tacit ceasefire, is voicing some consternation, having been sidelined by the latest events.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been quoted as saying that he is sure an Egyptian-mediated deal with Hamas has been struck according to which Hamas would halt rocket firing on Israel in return for an Israeli commitment to refrain from targeting Hamas political leaders.

Hamas scoffed at the "insinuations" and "bad-mouthing", reminding Abbas that Hamas's leaders and their sons have always been at the forefront of the struggle against the Israeli occupation.

Palestinian political commentators generally believe that the tahdia in Gaza, along with America's ostensible failure to make a civil administration out of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is actually good news for Palestinian national unity and the prospects of a serious rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas.

"I think the PA leadership is discovering that it will be futile to count on the Bush administration to pressure Israel to end the occupation that started in 1967," said Palestinian political commentator Hani Al-Masri.

He told the Weekly that the Palestinian leadership is now realising that there is a vast gap between the realities that Israel wants to impose through coercion on the ground, and what the Palestinians want, namely an end to the occupation and the creation of a viable state on all of the occupied territories.

"It is very clear that the utmost Israel is willing to give for peace will not be accepted by the most moderate Palestinian leader. Hence, Abbas and Fatah are reconsidering their previous calculations. They simply can't give the US the benefit of the doubt, although they wouldn't say this publicly."

It is actually no secret that Abbas feels that he is losing in terms of public support as Palestinians have come to realise more than at any other time that Israel only understands the language of brute force and that had it not been for the Jerusalem attack on Thursday, Israel would have kept up its murderous onslaught on the Gaza Strip.

What is more important though is the growing realisation in Abbas's immediate circle that Israel is not really taking him, not to mention the entire peace process, seriously and that the American-sponsored peace talks are futile.

This week, Israel announced fresh plans to built 1,150 settler units on occupied Arab land in East Jerusalem. In addition, Israel has begun issuing land deeds to Jews in East Jerusalem for real estate belonging to the Islamic Waqf and Palestinian absentees. The measure has been condemned by Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah as "a brazen falsification" and "legalisation of theft". "They confiscate the land unilaterally, give land rights to Jews unilaterally, and determine their borders unilaterally and then they claim they want peace," said PLO official Yasser Abd Rabbo.

The PA has already appealed to the international community, especially the US and Europe, to force Israel to stop the new settlement expansion drive in the West Bank. To be sure, criticisms have been issued from some Western capitals. However, these criticisms will force Israel to cancel or even suspend the planned expansion. A retreat on such a vital issue by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could lead to the break-up of his fragile coalition.

Shas, the ultra-Orthodox religious party representing Jews from the Middle East, has already threatened to withdraw from the coalition if Olmert gives in to external pressure.

Abbas faces an even harder dilemma. If he returns to the talks with Olmert, without an agreement to scrap or at least freezing the latest settlement drive, he will lose not only face, but whatever popularity he still enjoys among his people.

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