Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 October - 5 November 2008
Issue No. 920
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The calm before the storm

Palestinians have had a respite, but for how long is anyone's guess, says Saleh Al-Naami

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Hamas security men, foreign peace activists and Palestinian civilians gather near the ship Dignity that departed from Cyprus yesterday afternoon to protest against the Israeli sanctions imposed after Islamist Hamas gained political control in Gaza in June 2007

Yehia Salasel, 44, tiptoes quietly into the house after a late night with friends. He lives in the village of Al-Qarara, right on the borders between Gaza and Israel, and spending time with friends is the one thing that compensates for the inconvenience of living in that dangerous zone. For nearly three years, the Israelis waged repeated incursions into his village. Often, he had to spend the night outside the house to avoid confronting the occupation soldiers.

Two months after Egypt negotiated a calming-down agreement between Israel and the resistance movement, Yehia is pleased with the results. "For three years, we lived in hell. In our area, we have the right to a little peace. Our leaders, when they discuss the future of the calming-down deal, must take into account the reality of people's life and suffering here. We have been the worst affected by the previous situation, and the first to benefit from the calming-down," Yehia told Al-Ahram Weekly. His view is widely shared by the inhabitants of the residential areas bordering Israel.

As the future of the calming-down deal is being debated, many ask: would the Palestinian groups agree to extend the calming- down period? And under what conditions?

Ayam Taha, a key figure in Hamas, says that any decision concerning the calming- down period should be taken in consultation with other Palestinian factions, if only to make it hold. Israel, he adds, hasn't fully abided by the calming-down deal. It hasn't allowed all types of merchandise to come to Gaza, and the Rafah crossing is still closed. "Factions should agree on whether the renewal of the calming-down period must apply to the West Bank as well," Taha states.

One faction, Al-Jihad Al-Islami, has questioned the wisdom of the deal. Nafez Azzam, a leading figure in Al-Jihad, says that the calming-down deal has "harmed" the Palestinian national cause. "There is a correlation between the calming-down deal and the divisions on the Palestinian scene. The cessation of the resistance operations has made Palestinian factions focus on their differences rather than on fighting the occupation," Azzam notes. He adds that any extension of the calming-down deal should be approved by all factions.

Despite the reservations, there are signs that most Palestinian factions want the calming- down period to continue. One reason is that the calming-down is good for military training.

As darkness fell, those who walk down the Sekka Street, close to Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp, hear the gunshots. Dozens of Al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, are drilling. They would soon be parading in the street, after a full day of firing exercises at the training camp. At night, dozens of masked men come into the camp. Others don't bother to cover their faces.

Other Palestinian resistance groups have also been using the respite to drill non-stop. Al-Qassam Brigades has turned out several classes of fresh fighters, but the media is not allowed to interview the trainees or photograph the drilling grounds. Many of the military outfits of various groups have set up training facilities in the sites evacuated by Jewish settlers. The evacuated sites are usually close to the sea and full of sand dunes, and therefore deemed perfect for training. Al-Qods Brigades, Al-Qasa Brigades and Saladin Brigades have all announced training classes for their volunteers.

Abu Mujahid, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, says that the drills are a precaution against any large-scale operation Israel may wage in Gaza in the future. "Resistance groups have to remain alert in the face of any aggression." He notes that the drills include training on the abduction of soldiers, promising that Israel would be met with "unpleasant surprises" if it attacks Gaza.

In Israel, officials differ in their assessment of the calming-down deal. The General Security Service, Shabak, and some army generals say that the calming-down period was a mistake right from the start. General Yoav Galant, the southern command chief, recently stated that Israel should not have agreed to the calming-down before Hamas released the abducted soldier and stopped the smuggling of weapons. According to Galant, Israeli politicians should order the army to resume the target killings against Hamas so as to force the movement to release the abducted soldier.

Shabak chief Yuval Diskin says that the calming-down period is boosting Hamas's strength and popularity, while undermining the authority of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "When the Palestinians see us stopping our military operations in Gaza and allowing foodstuffs into Gaza while our soldiers remain abducted, the first thing that comes to their minds is that Hamas did really well," he told a recent cabinet session.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi support the extension of the calming-down period. Israeli papers say that Barak has asked Egyptian officials to persuade Hamas to extend the current arrangement. An Israeli television commentator says that Barak knows that military operations wouldn't force Hamas to make concessions over Shalit, and may even endanger his life.

There is no guarantee that an Israeli onslaught on Gaza would stop Hamas from firing hundreds, if not thousands, of rockets on nearby Israeli settlements. Israeli officials believe that Hamas has missiles that can reach Ashdod to the north, which means that over 500,000 Israelis would be within their range.

Barak may have other fish to fry. If Israel attacks Iran, the defence minister would want some peace on the southern front. Some commentators believe that Israel may attack Iran between 5 November, the date of the US elections, and 20 January, the date of the swearing-in of the new president.

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