Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 May 2008
Issue No. 895
Front Page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A conditional calm

Palestinian factions meeting with Egypt's General Intelligence chief give their conditional agreement to Cairo's proposals to maintain calm in Gaza, reports Amira Howeidy

Twelve Palestinian factions met with Egypt's General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman in Cairo Tuesday and Wednesday and agreed, despite expressing reservations, to an initiative by Cairo to maintain a state of "calm" in Gaza. Suleiman is expected to take this initiative, now backed "conditionally" by all the Palestinian factions, to Tel Aviv by Sunday or Monday. Should Israel accept it, the calm, or ' tahdia ' in Arabic, will take effect.

Originally presented as a "factions' dialogue" similar to previous meetings hosted by Egyptian General Intelligence, this week's meetings didn't group the factions together and did not include either Fatah or Hamas.

"Why talk to each other in Cairo when we've already done that in Gaza," Jameel Al-Majdalawi of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) told Al-Ahram Weekly. Instead, each delegation met with Suleiman separately in a series of brief, to-the-point meetings focussed on the Egyptian proposal.

The Egyptian call for "calm" between Israel and the Palestinians envisages that it apply first in Gaza and then, after a period of six months, extend to the West Bank. This should coincide with the opening of the Egypt-Gaza and Gaza-Israel borders, closed for the last nine months as part of Israel's military and economic siege of the Strip.

Most of the factions expressed "reservations" over the separation between Gaza and the West Bank. "This is precisely what Israel wants," Ramzi Rabah of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) told the Weekly. "There is land confiscation in the West Bank, illegal Israeli settlement activity and, of course, assassinations. We don't want to give Israel the opportunity to divide the Palestinian cause by separating Gaza from the West Bank."

Although other factions shared Rabah's reservations they didn't object to the Egyptian initiative and as the Weekly was going to press on Wednesday the issue was still being discussed.

The proposal was first presented to a delegation from Hamas that was invited to Cairo last week. Mahmoud Al-Zahar, Palestinian foreign minister in the ousted Hamas government, said his movement accepted the proposal on condition that Israel abides by it. Should Israel turn Egypt's initiative down, he added, Cairo should then be willing to open its borders with Gaza to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that has been caused by the Israeli siege.

Last January thousands of Palestinians crossed the Rafah border with Egypt, storming in to buy food, fuel and supplies. The border breach resulted in a diplomatic problem for Egypt which Israel expects to keep its borders closed as part of the sanctions imposed on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Cairo, though, remains publicly embarrassed by its indirect contribution to the siege.

Hamas officials have issued repeated warnings about the deteriorating situation in Gaza as a result of the continuous siege. On 24 April the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which distributes food and essential commodities to nearly two-thirds of Gaza's population, suspended food deliveries due to fuel shortages.

Speaking to the Weekly on Tuesday, PFLP leader Maher Al-Taher said that his movement would expect Egypt to open border crossings should Israel turn down the proposal.

All the faction spokesmen interviewed by the Weekly were sceptical of Israel's commitment to calm. "At no point in its history has Israel stuck to a ceasefire or calm agreement," says Al-Taher. "We don't expect them to have changed this time around."

PFLP's Al-Majdalawi points out that the day before he was leaving Gaza for Cairo on Tuesday Israel had just killed a mother and her four children in Beit Hanoun, north of Gaza. "This massacre is Israel's message to the Palestinians," he said.

So why even talk about calm if everyone expects it to fail?

"We have no doubts about Israel's intentions to kill and confiscate land, but we also believe that this time around Egyptian efforts are very serious," says Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Emad Refaai. "It is essential that some sort of process is devised for a breakthrough on the Palestinian front, which is more complicated than ever at the moment."

Should Israel reject the proposal for calm, Refaai adds, "it will be a slap in Egypt's face."

"Egypt is now throwing the ball in Israel's court, and if all else fails, we think that the Arabs, including Egypt, should be committed to easing the siege of Gaza. The Palestinians cannot be expected to continue living under this deadly siege."

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