Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2008
Issue No. 896
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Behind the smokescreen

Israel's belief that it has cornered Palestinian factions into agreeing to a truce whatever the cost is misguided, writes Saleh Al-Na'ami from Gaza

 Ismail Abu Balima, 45, woke at 4am last Thursday to find his house shaking as if it had been hit by an earthquake. Israeli army bulldozers were uprooting the olive grove he owns, and on the edge of which his home stands, in Abu Hamam village in central Gaza. Abu Balima, his wife and their five children watched as the bulldozers uprooted the trees they had grown up with and on which their livelihoods depend. When the vehicles moved closer to the house and destroyed the beehives just 200 metres from the door the family then rushed out, fearing the house itself would be bulldozed. Instead a bulldozer headed towards the family's car and flattened it, turning it into scrap metal then covering it with dirt.

Abu Balima's experience is not unique. His crime, like that of all the residents of Abu Hamam, is living close to the line that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip. It is an area that Israel has decided to turn into a security belt, "shaving" it of trees and any other vegetation so as to enhance the Israeli army's ability to monitor the border and prevent resistance fighters from crossing to execute operations against army sites. Tens of thousands of families who live in the border regions have lost their orchards and fields in the last two weeks.

The Israeli army embarked on its orgy of destruction just days after Egypt had persuaded representatives of the Palestinian factions to accept a conditional calm in Gaza. It is a truce that Tel Aviv is clearly not interested in, with Israeli decision-makers repeatedly suggesting that the Palestinians, and Hamas in particular, will do anything in return for a loosening of the siege on Gaza. Ehud Barak, Israel's minister of defence, clearly believes this also includes the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive by Palestinian factions since 2006. In a radio interview on Tuesday he said he was expecting news of the fate of Shalit at the same time that Egypt's Chief of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman officially informs Israel of the details of the truce.

Barak said that the Egyptian proposals include guarantees for a halt to weapons smuggling across Egypt's border with Gaza, and while he did not rule out Israeli acceptance he hinted strongly that the truce was likely to be a temporary affair and could be followed by escalation that would amount to a "decisive military confrontation" with Hamas.

A report published in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot on Tuesday claimed that Barak, Prime Minister Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Egyptians that Cairo must offer guarantees that all arms-smuggling will stop and that Shalit will be released before Israel considers the Egyptian proposal.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, seem determined to show that Israel's reading of the current situation is wrong, with factions responding to the bulldozing and most recent assassinations of resistance fighters by shelling Israeli settlements near the Gaza Strip. Said Siyyam, interior minister in the ousted Hamas government of Ismail Haniyeh, says Palestinian willingness to reach a truce does not mean maintaining silence over "crimes committed by the occupation". Speaking to Al- Ahram Weekly Siyyam said that Israel is clearly attempting to impose its own conditions by directing strikes at the resistance.

"It is the right of the resistance to respond to aggression, and the resistance has made strikes at the enemy after every confrontation and invasion." Should Israel reject the Egyptian proposals, he added, an "explosion" will rock the region. The Palestinians will "not submit to the slow death sentence that has been passed against them".

Many observers believe that the Israeli position now indicates that the leaks to the press about US pressure on Tel Aviv to agree to the Egyptian proposals were inaccurate.

Political analyst Nehad Al- Sheikh Khalil told the Weekly that the American administration and Israel seem intent on undermining the credibility of the Egyptian government, certainly as far as the Palestinian public is concerned, in a way calculated to harm Cairo after it had exerted efforts to get the factions to agree to the calm. Should Israel reject the Egyptian proposal Cairo's response, he says, should be to immediately reopen the Rafah crossing.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit this week has not helped the situation. During her meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Rice insisted on separating final status issues and focussed instead on less pivotal concerns such as borders and security arrangements.

Rice asked Mahmoud Abbas to indefinitely postpone discussions of major issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees and illegal Israeli settlements. An informed Palestinian source told the Weekly that Rice had informed Abbas that Olmert could not discuss such issues without risking the collapse of his government given the extent of opposition within the ruling coalition and Olmert's own party.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source added that American leaks of a "major advance" in negotiations were deliberately "misleading and aimed to cover up the American administration's inability to keep promises made at the Annapolis meeting over the declaration of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008."

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported on Tuesday that a member of Rice's inner circle had said the US secretary of state knows that the chances of any advance towards a settlement are near zero given that Olmert is currently being questioned in a new corruption case.

Meanwhile, the Judaisation of Jerusalem continues apace, as does settlement building across the West Bank, and few Palestinians would be blind to the irony that on Monday evening, as the media was mulling over leaks of "progress" in negotiations between the two sides over borders and security arrangements Israel's Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit was being congratulated by settlement leaders on his decision to turn several settlements in the West Bank into cities.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, says that the Americans had asked Abbas to ignore settlement activity and continue to negotiate with Israel "as though everything was normal".

The "natural response" of the Arabs, Abed Rabbo maintains, must be to inform Washington in clear terms that the Arab initiative "cannot remain an open offer and that they [the Arabs] have other options".

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