Beyond the truce
With the newborn Hamas-Israel truce looking fragile, officials scramble to make progress on phase two issues, Dina Ezzat
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GAZANS RETURN TO NORMALITY: Palestinians enjoy a day at the beach in Gaza following a truce between Israel and Hamas. Gaza residents savoured the first weekend of calm after months of bloodshed. Children and young men are having fun under a bright blue sky flying the Palestinian flag high
The fate of the Egyptian-sponsored truce struck earlier this month between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian factions in Gaza is already in question. Over the past 48 hours, Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza exchanged accusations of truce violations as Israeli aggression on Islamic resistance groups in the West Bank -- yet to be included in the truce -- prompted rocket attacks Tuesday evening on the western Negev. Wednesday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered crossings linking Gaza to Israel closed. According to the terms of the truce these crossings were supposed to be opened as of 8am Wednesday.
Informed Egyptian officials who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly Wednesday morning on condition of anonymity said that Egypt was "very disturbed" by current developments and that General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman -- the architect of the truce -- is already in direct contact with both sides to make sure that the situation does not escalate. Egypt, officials say, is determined to bolster the truce that took months to negotiate.
Egypt is particularly dismayed that developments in recent days come at a time when Suleiman is working on the "post-truce" phase, which should secure a long-blocked prisoner exchange deal trading the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Palestinian resistance fighters in June 2006, for the freedom of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Officials hope that the truce that entered into effect 19 June will survive the days ahead so that a push can be given to conclude the prisoner exchange.
In Sharm El-Sheikh Tuesday, President Hosni Mubarak and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed ways to secure progress on the prisoner exchange as a part of solidifying and capitalising on the truce. The Mubarak-Olmert talks, which were mostly one-to-one, were coupled with another tête-à- tête between Suleiman and Yoram Turbowicz, Olmert's chief of staff, on the details of the swap. Spokesmen Suleiman Awwad and Marc Regev, for Mubarak and Olmert respectively, underlined intensifying Egyptian efforts to mediate the deal.
Speaking off-the-record, Egyptian and Israeli sources said that the main problem that has for over a year blocked a deal is now being resolved. Israel has accepted that it will have to release Palestinian prisoners that it had originally barred from release while Hamas has realised that it cannot get all the prisoners it wants freed. The general assessment Tuesday afternoon was that the deal could be concluded in "a few weeks". On Tuesday and Wednesday, Palestinian and Israeli envoys arrived to Egypt for indirect talks sponsored by Suleiman to iron out the details on the swap.
Progress on the prisoner swap, Egyptian and Israeli sources say, will facilitate the operation of the Rafah border crossing linking Gaza to Egypt. Its opening is a longstanding Palestinian demand. Israel wants Egypt to make Rafah's opening conditional on the release of Shalit and its diplomats suggest that Egypt agrees. Egyptian officials, on the other hand, argue the need to link Rafah's opening to "progress" towards a deal rather than its conclusion. In an interview accorded to Israeli TV and aired Tuesday, President Mubarak said that Israel should be "realistic" in its expectations.
Progress on the prisoners deal could also allow for the inclusion of the West Bank in the truce. This could help boost the confidence of Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams that the outline of a final status agreement is close at hand -- a prospect doubted by many given protracted disagreement over the fate of East Jerusalem, settlements and the legal right of Palestinian refugees to return to their original homes and villages in what is deemed Israel proper.
According to Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, director of the Arab Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), progress is necessary simply to keep the truce. While recognising the difficulties involved in concluding the truce, and the many humanitarian and political benefits it could secure for both Palestinians and Israelis if it lasts, Choukri- Fishere is concerned that the truce is fragile to the point that it could collapse.
The exclusion of the West Bank is a prime matter of concern to Choukri-Fishere. "The exclusion means that [Israeli] operations in the West Bank are not suspended and this leaves open the question of whether or not Palestinian factions in Gaza would respond if [resistance] members are attacked in the West Bank," he said moments before Tuesday's developments.
Choukri-Fishere is concerned also about other unanswered questions: How would Israel respond to inevitable arms smuggling through tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt? How can Hamas control the near double-figure number of factions involved in the truce -- some reluctantly? "The [truce] should lead to something; otherwise it will consume itself," he said.
The ICG director argues firmly in favour of reopening Gaza's crossings, especially Rafah, in line with the 2005 agreement that allows for joint Palestinian Authority and Israeli oversight, all under the supervision of European Union observers. Equally urgent, he added, is the need to complete the prisoner exchange. This "two- dimensional" track would give both Palestinians and Israelis a sense of accomplishment that is crucial for the survival of the truce, he stressed.
"Meanwhile, Palestinian national reconciliation dialogue should start without further delay," said Choukri-Fishere. According to him, the Arab League, with a leading role afforded to Egypt, "the most crucial player on this front", needs to move forward in promoting dialogue. Sources say that Egypt and the secretariat of the Arab League are already talking "separately" to leading Palestinian figures.
"Israel and the Palestinian parties feel the heat," Choukri-Fishere said. Each side, for its own internal political purposes, wishes to avert direct confrontation for now. The question is whether actual progress on substantive issues can be, which in turn would secure the truce. ( see p.6)