Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 May 2008
Issue No. 897
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Storm clouds in Gaza

Egypt's efforts at mediating have no chance as Israel prepares for more aggression, warns Saleh Al-Naami

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Two Palestinian children sit in candlelight in their home in Gaza City. The Strip faced new blackouts when its only power plant shut down after receiving no fuel from Israel

One of the policemen noted a pilot- less, Israeli reconnaissance plane in the sky, and they all rushed out of their headquarters into a nearby orange grove. Their headquarters is located on the coastal road connecting Khan Yunis and Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, and they acted on the basis of orders issued by their superiors. Five of their colleagues had been killed, and 10 others wounded, in an attack by such planes on two police headquarters in the same area at the end of last week. These security precautions, devised to deal with the Israeli military escalation, came as efforts to reach a truce between the Palestinian resistance movements and Israel climaxed. They also coincided with Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman landing in Tel Aviv to brief Israeli leaders on the details of the Egyptian truce proposal.

Yet Israel did not only welcome Suleiman with a military escalation in the Gaza Strip. It also put forth new stipulations and insisted that the Egyptian initiative include other clauses, such as an Egyptian commitment to preventing arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip, which is seen as contributing to the military strength of Hamas. Another demand is that events in the Gaza Strip not be tied to the West Bank under any circumstances.

The Egyptian truce proposal, to which all Palestinian factions have agreed, requires that the Palestinian resistance movements halt their operations against Israel for six months, and that Israel halt its operations against Palestinians, initially in the Gaza Strip. Israel must also refrain from conducting raids and arresting activists in the West Bank during those six months, as well as raise the siege of Gaza and reopen the border crossings between Gaza and Israel, in addition to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Yediot Aharonot reported Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying that Israel insists on granting its forces full freedom to continue making arrests and carrying out interrogations of activists in the West Bank. To pressure Palestinians to accept the new conditions, a number of ministers in Olmert's government have called for a rejection of the Egyptian proposal and commencement of a major military campaign in the Gaza Strip. Israeli Minister of Housing Zeev Boim holds that acceptance of a temporary, six-month truce would allow Hamas to strengthen its forces and afterwards confront Israel militarily under better conditions. "We must destroy their forces immediately and prevent them from taking us by surprise," Boim said during the last Israeli government meeting.

Israeli Minister of Transportation General Shaul Mofaz called for the obliteration of the Hamas political and military leadership, as well as efforts to halt the flow of funds to Gaza if rocket fire does not halt completely. More serious, however, was Roni Sofer's report in last Monday's edition of Yediot Aharonot that a top Israeli official had said that Israel intended to wait until its 60th anniversary celebrations were over, and then wage a major military campaign in the Gaza Strip. Olmert also mentioned such a scenario when he said during the last government meeting, "we are committed to halting the firing of missiles on our settlements at any cost and by all means." Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak strengthened this impression when he said during the government session, "it has become clear that the stability of relations between Israel and Hamas requires major military operations."

Among the signs of Israel's intentions of buying time is the fact that the Israeli government has decided to inform Egypt of its response to the Egyptian proposals next week, meaning that Omar Suleiman won't return to Cairo with a clear Israeli response even though Israel was well versed with the proposals before he arrived. Even if the Israeli political leadership intends to accept the Egyptian proposals, the Israeli army leadership won't let that happen without stressing its reservations and pointing out that they do not guarantee a solution to the problem of the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. That will affect the chances of Tel Aviv dealing seriously with Suleiman's message.

Ayman Youssef, professor of political science at the American University in Jenin, says that Israel does not intend to deal seriously with the Egyptian truce proposal. Youssef says that Israel acts on the assumption that any truce will serve Hamas and strengthen its rule in Gaza, which would not be in Israel's interest. Israeli decision-makers are convinced that, with the siege of the Gaza Strip, Hamas faces a major crisis, and they doubt that it can maintain its rule due to its inability to provide basic life needs to the people, he suggests. They see a need to continue economic pressures so as to bring down Hamas rule. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Youssef said that Olmert, who is plagued with scandals and fears losing his post, will want a military escalation against the Gaza Strip so as to improve his image before Israeli public opinion. Youssef suggests that Israeli leaders have in many cases resorted to military escalation against Palestinians and Arabs in order to cover up domestic problems.

Youssef points out that following the suspicions that Olmert has received large bribes, the real decision-maker in the Israeli government is Barak, known for his tendency towards military answers. Youssef thinks it possible that Olmert's government may not even be able to respond to the Egyptian proposal, as Olmert might submit his resignation at any moment due to the growing evidence of his financial misdoings. Youssef suggests that if the minister of foreign affairs, Tzipi Livni, assumes the post of prime minister in succession to Olmert, that would only strengthen the tendency towards settling the confrontation with the Palestinian resistance through military means. Youssef warns that another scenario is also possible -- that Israel might accept the Egyptian proposal and yet also increase its oppressive measures against the resistance factions in the West Bank. That would provoke the Palestinian factions in Gaza, who would respond, and then Israel would take that as evidence that the Palestinian factions had broken the truce. Israel would then take that as justification for waging a full scale campaign in the Gaza Strip.

Youssef believes that the missing link that would allow Palestinians to either end or limit Israel's ability to manoeuvre is domestic harmony. He says that the sharp Palestinian divide enables Israel to market its policies that oppress the Palestinian people. Israel, he says, justifies its siege of the Gaza Strip and its military operations there as being for the sake of weakening Hamas and strengthening the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, although its main goal is deepening the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Abu Mujahid, spokesperson of the Popular Resistance Committees, one of the Palestinian resistance factions, warns Israel of the consequences of rejecting the Egyptian proposal. He stresses that the response of the resistance moments "will surprise Israel" should it insist on continuing its attacks and imposition of the siege. In statements made to the Weekly, Abu Mujahid said that the erratic positions taken and threats made by Israeli leaders aim at wrenching last-minute Palestinian concessions, but that rejection of the Egyptian proposal would result in the resistance factions continuing their operations against occupation targets. "Israel must expect responses it has not planned for if it believes that it can continue its attacks and imposition of the siege," he said. As for Egyptian expectations, Abu Mujahid says that Omar Suleiman promised the Palestinian faction representatives he met with recently in Cairo that the Rafah crossing would be reopened should the Israeli response to the Egyptian proposal be negative.

For its part, Hamas refuses to be pressured into any other issues such as that of Shalit or arms smuggling. Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum told the Weekly that Hamas and the rest of the resistance factions cannot accept any proposal outside the scope of the Egyptian one, and added that the issue of releasing Gilad Shalit is connected to reaching a prisoner exchange agreement with the resistance movements who have abducted him. He says that Shalit won't be released until Israel agrees to the resistance movement's conditions. Barhoum stresses that Israel is trying to avoid facing up to the requirements of a truce, believing that it can obtain one for free. Israel, he says, is trying with these conditions to put the ball in the court of Hamas and the other resistance factions.

"Should Israel reject the Egyptian proposals, the Palestinian resistance will know how to defend the Palestinian people, and will show Israel that counting on using military power was misplaced," he said. Barhoum acknowledges the importance of solving the Palestinian domestic rift as a decisive factor in limiting Israel's ability to justify its attacks and the siege in Gaza. Yet he also holds Palestinian President Abbas responsible for not resuming the dialogue that is supposed to lead to resolving the rift. Barhoum holds that after Tel Aviv and Washington broke all the promises they had made to Abbas during the Annapolis meeting, he should view domestic dialogue as the "best guarantee for convincing the others to recognise the national rights of the Palestinian people and for halting attacks against it."

Regardless of the domestic Palestinian debate on how to respond to aggression against the Palestinian people, all signs indicate that Israel has made its decision and is preparing for a decisive round with the resistance in Gaza, regardless of the nature of the Egyptian proposal.

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