Calm for now
Hamas and Israel agree to a truce that starts at 6am today, reports Doaa El-Bey
Hamas and Israel have agreed to the first phase of a truce in Gaza and negotiations on the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured almost two years ago by Hamas, are expected to begin on Sunday. Amos Gilad, a senior aide to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, is heading to Cairo for talks with Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman aimed at finalising the truce agreement. Following the agreement to the truce, Egypt opened Wednesday the Rafah border with the Gaza Strip.
Attempts to broker a ceasefire began to bear fruit earlier this week when a Hamas delegation visiting Cairo agreed to listen to the Israeli offer and give its final response on a ceasefire in Gaza to the Egyptian mediators. They met with Suleiman to discuss details of the truce. Hopes then waned when Moussa Abu Marzouq, head of the Hamas delegation, left Cairo on Monday without giving a final response and there were rumours that Hamas was requesting a two-week period to review the situation.
Abu Marzouq was joined by Mohamed Nasr from Syria and Gamal Abu Hashim and Khalil Al-Haya from Gaza for the three days of talks with Suleiman. The delegation kept Hamas's Political Bureau Chief Khaled Meshaal informed about the progress of the talks throughout.
Israel presented its conditions for a ceasefire -- a complete halt to Hamas attacks, including rocket strikes against Israel -- during Gilad's meeting with Suleiman in Cairo last week. The breakthrough in negotiations came when Israel dropped its earlier demand that the immediate release of Shalit be included in the deal. Hamas officials insist that Shalit will be released later in a prisoner exchange deal and not as part of any possible ceasefire agreement.
After the truce was declared Israel said it was willing to give it a chance but stressed it was also preparing troops for a possible ground attack should the agreement fail. Hamas said it would respect the truce timetable but warned that it remained free to respond to any attacks on its members before the ceasefire came into force.
The lack of trust between the two parties could hamper a lasting ceasefire. Hamas does not believe Israel will permanently abandon its blockade of Gaza but, rather, will re-impose it at will, while Israel suspects Hamas will attempt to use the truce to replenish its arsenal.
Both parties are likely to use the truce to impose changes on the ground. By lifting the blockade the humanitarian and economic situation in Gaza will improve, helping Hamas regain lost popularity and remain in power. Israel is buying time to build more settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. "Generally speaking, Israel is using the situation in a way that allows it to impose more facts on the ground" says Mahmoud Khalaf, a strategic expert at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies.
Khalaf criticises both parties for considering a truce in Gaza as a strategic objective. "This calm does not aim to conclude an agreement or pact. It aims to create a suitable atmosphere to reopen dialogue between Fatah and Hamas. While the rockets sound it is not possible to create an atmosphere for reconciliation," he said.
Nor is it clear how the truce will affect border crossings from Gaza to Israel, such as Eretz, a major conduit for fuel, food and other aid, and to Egypt, as at Rafah, where the crossing is controlled according to the 2005 agreement signed by the Palestinian Authority. Israel has long used the crossings as a pressure card against Hamas which needs them to be opened if it is to relieve the suffering of the people in Gaza and remain in power there.
The release of Shalit is another potential hurdle to the truce. During a cabinet meeting on Sunday Israeli Prime Minister Olmert said that Shalit's release was an inseparable part of any truce with Hamas. Hamas said that freeing Shalit would come within a prisoner exchange deal. Failure to agree to a deal between the two parties could undermine the calm.