An insider’s view
By Allon Lee
The ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas is a testament to the success of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip according to Nimrod Barkan, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Centre for Policy Research.
But now Israel’s next challenge is to prevent Hamas falsely spinning the ceasefire as a sign that Israel buckled in the face of terror in the form of thousands of rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip onto southern Israeli towns, Barkan told AIR on June 27 during a visit to Australia.
“The ceasefire was to a large extent a Hamas request,” said Barkan.
“Public opinion polls [of Palestinians] since June 2007 show a continuous decline in popularity and for Hamas it was important to stop that. That was the main reason why they wanted to engage in a ceasefire,” he explained.
Hamas’ imperative had been and is the preservation of what Barkan described as effectively “the first Sunni fundamentalist state in the region.”
“And the more they became a managing government, the dimension of their thinking has developed from purely military matters of how to fight into how to preserve their control over their people,” Barkan said.
Since its successful coup d’etat last June, Hamas has faced an international boycott as a result of its refusal to accept the Quartet’s three demands that it recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept all previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
The practical implementation of the boycott was Israel’s closure of its border crossings with Gaza. Traffic into the Strip was limited to basic humanitarian aid, including gas, food and medical supplies, as well as allowing entry into Israel for Gazans requiring medical treatment.
For Hamas, the immediate war is against President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the West Bank and is negotiating a final status agreement with Israel, Barkan said.
Hamas’ attempts to portray the ceasefire as a victory for the use of force against Israel is geared towards winning the hearts and minds of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas’ message is that violence is the only method of reaching results, Barkan said.
A potential concern of the ceasefire is the weakening of the international campaign to bolster the position of Abbas in the eyes of Palestinians, Barkan said.
Similarly, the effect on President Abbas’ standing and authority in the aftermath of a future prisoner swap deal with Hamas for Gilad Shalit’s release is also a conundrum Israel needs to consider.
Barkan suggested the risk for Israel in agreeing to a prisoner swap is that Hamas will also try to portray the deal as a propaganda victory for the effectiveness of violence, and attempt to undercut Abbas’ patient and peaceful policy of negotiation by asking where are the Palestinian prisoners he has managed to release?
On the other side of the ledger, Barkan outlined a number of reasons why Israel was receptive to entering a ceasefire agreement with an organisation that has made clear it won’t recognise Israel under any circumstances.
At the most basic level, Israel understandably wanted to see an end to the firing from Gaza of Qassam rockets and mortars on cities in Israel’s south, Barkan said.
Israel had a number of options, ranging from a ceasefire to the most extreme option of taking over the Gaza Strip, Barkan said.
“Taking over and running Gaza again is a bad idea,” Barkan said, noting that Israel has no desire to control the lives of Palestinians.
A military option against Hamas’ ongoing rule of Gaza was discounted by Israel for two reasons, Barkan explained.
“The Israeli military felt that they were not in a position to carry out a strike on Gaza now that would be effective – that’s why the government decided on a ceasefire, and it wasn’t an easy decision.”
Secondly, the absence of a clear exit strategy could “result in a strategic failure to the campaign,” he said.
“One of the reasons the Israeli Government agreed to the ceasefire was because nobody provided a clear-cut exit strategy that would be better in terms of the end results than the current reality.”
An important plank in the ceasefire proposal was an Egyptian commitment to intensify its efforts to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza, and also maintain strong control over who and what enters and leaves the Gaza-Egyptian border crossing, he said.
The Egyptian involvement in the ceasefire negotiations was a direct consequence of Hamas’ destruction of the Egypt-Gaza border crossing in January which allowed thousands of Gazans to enter border towns in the Sinai.
“So the decision was made in Cairo that never again will the border fail. This became the prime foreign issue for the Egyptians in this region and they have been working seriously to build a wall along the Egyptian-Gazan border,” he said.
Egypt was also concerned after a delegation from the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo – the oldest and largest of the world’s Islamist groups – came to Gaza to meet Hamas’ leadership.
“It was very disturbing for the concept of national security for Egypt because they saw themselves surrounded by Iranian-backed fundamentalists, Sunni, that would operate from Gaza and Egypt and they certainly wanted to drive a wedge between them and that’s why closing and sealing the border is an issue of such great importance.”
Barkan was optimistic that the ceasefire agreement will not weaken international pressure on Hamas immediately.
“We have not seen any weakening of the three demands. In France, the Foreign Ministry succeeded in convincing President Sarkozy and the Foreign Minister to test whether Hamas would be willing to make some amends in order to open a channel of communication with Europe.
“They sent some emissaries, but I think that the end result was non-satisfactory in terms of the political thinking and higher echelons of the foreign office.”
But longer term, Hamas will inevitably accrue an image of legitimacy “if there is silence on the border, the crossings are open, they succeed in building a thriving Palestinian society, if they reach an understanding on the opening of the [Egypt-Gaza] Rafah crossings and the Europeans are involved”.
“All these things are incremental steps in legitimising Hamas as the ruler of the Gaza Strip and as an entity on its own. With time, if that succeeds, there might be a change in the European attitude to Hamas,” he said.
As such, Barkan reiterated the need for all the relevant parties backing a peaceful solution to the conflict to counter Hamas’ attempts to discredit President Abbas’ diplomatic initiative in terms of a zero-sum paradigm.
“If we do not build [Abbas] to be the leader of the Palestinian people, and Hamas succeeds in building itself as a legitimate Palestinian leader with successes that are not connected to negotiations with Israel, they will become more acceptable both internally and externally.”
Based on the assumption that Hamas is not likely to recognise Israel any time soon, Israel’s experience with Hezbollah in Lebanon foreshadows the likely course of what will happen with Hamas over the medium and longer term.
“I guess there is a similarity in the security regime between us and Gaza to the security regime that developed over 20 years between Israel and Lebanon. There will be more outbursts of shooting, Israeli incursions, but eventually there will be a retreat to a ceasefire.”
But Barkan does not view this scenario as completely gloomy.
“There may be a few rounds of that nature as there were in Lebanon until we reached the current situation where there is no shooting at all along the border.
“But we saw in Lebanon that every time there was an eruption of massive exchange of fire – 1994, 1996 and 2006 – the security regime has improved to Israel’s favour. Every time.”
And in the event the ceasefire fails and Israel still decides a military invasion is not on the table, the status quo that existed until the ceasefire could be reinstated.
“Our biggest pressure point is the crossings, because opening the crossings is really what Hamas wants for its own people. Hamas wants to prove to its people that the warpath with the Jews gets results. So the closing of the crossings is a very problematic result for them. Our reaction was certainly effective.”