Ceasefire terms, and regional context for the Gaza conflict

Jan 9, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 9, 2009
Number 01/09 #03

The UN Security Council has just passed a somewhat ambiguous call for a Gaza ceasefire, which is supposed to be “immediate” and “durable”. The Israeli papers largely agree that Israeli forces have now reached a decision point – will they go into Gaza’s cities and engage in house to house fighting with Hamas forces digging in there or accept the ceasefire and talks proposed by Egypt and France (see here, here, and here. For some details about what Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak may be thinking about this dilemma, see this important article.) This Update deals with the terms Israel hopes to get out of any ceasefire, as well as the regional context for any future post-Gaza conflict peace progress.

We begin with the Jerusalem Post editorial on the terms Israel’s hope to achieve in  any ceasefire. It notes that Hamas’ control over any territory will always be problematic to any hopes of peace. However, the paper argues that Israel must demand three things in exchange for a ceasefire – an end to arms smuggling across the border, a change to arrangements so that Israel may retaliate for any violations of the ceasefire, and the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. For the Post’s full argument,  CLICK HERE. More advice on ending the war comes  from American academic and editor Marty Peretz (here and here), America academic Eric Trager, and Israeli commentator David Hexner.

Next up, Washington Post correspondent Craig Whitlock reports on the hopeful signs that the international community might finally be taking seriously the idea that preventing tunnel smuggling under the Gaza-Egypt border be a key component of any ceasefire agreement with Hamas. Israeli officials claim that the current military campaign against Hamas will only achieve short-term results without a long-term plan to stop Palestinian terrorist groups continuing their many years of tunnel building to import rockets and weapons into Gaza.Whitlock lists some of the proposals to block tunnel smuggling –  including “construction of a giant underground barrier along the nine-mile border between southern Gaza and Egypt” and talks to Israeli experts on the probability of their adoption and success. For this important article on a critical element of any ceasefire deal, CLICK HERE. Also discussing options on the smuggling front is Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz.

Finally, pre-eminent Middle East scholar and historian Bernard Lewis tackles the regional context of the current fighting through the question, “What kind of accommodation is possible, if ever, between Israel and the Arabs?” Lewis argues that there are now two paths to peace: one limited, and feasible, and one comprehensive, and thus remote.  As to the first path, Lewis argues that the wider Arab world may come to see Israel as a lesser threat than the “double threat” posed by Iran, namely that of an Iranian empire and Shi’ite revolution, and make peace. The second path, according to Lewis, is the growth of real democracy in the Arab world. For the complete analysis of this supremely knowledgeable scholar, CLICK HERE. Others looking at the wider conflicts that are shaping the Israel-Hamas clash are New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, as well as Barry Rubin.

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Editorial: Israel’s terms


Notwithstanding the cabinet’s authorization for the IDF to fight on, Israel’s decision to unilaterally halt offensive military operations in Gaza for three hours daily so residents can obtain supplies is just one of several indications that our decision makers are seeking an endgame to Operation Cast Lead.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly intimated that he opposes expanding the land war against Hamas, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has expressed appreciation to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy for their efforts to advance a cease-fire. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad told CNN that the Hamas leaders he hosts in Damascus were in fact “ready [to make a deal]. They were ready, they are ready.”

Like it or not, the spotlight is now shifting to the diplomatic arena at a moment when – while Hamas has been dealt a series of punishing blows – the bulk of its guerrilla army and military hardware remain unscathed.

We have consistently argued that Israel cannot tolerate the existence of a hostile regime between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan. Hamas stands as the antithesis of the two-state solution – the quintessential enemy of reconciliation. The prospects of cutting a deal with relative Palestinian moderates like Mahmoud Abbas are improbable so long as Hamas remains in power.

EGYPT IS spearheading the cease-fire efforts in coordination with the US, France and Britain, and in consultation with Israel and Hamas. Assuming Cairo comes up with an agreement, the UN Security Council can be expected to provide its imprimatur.

The Egyptian plan, presented when Mubarak met French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Sharm e-Sheikh, reportedly calls for a temporary cease-fire as well as opening the crossing points into Gaza from Egypt and Israel for humanitarian relief. The Bush administration is pressing to include a reference to halting rocket attacks from Gaza and an end to smuggling into the Strip through tunnels from Sinai.

Egyptian media say any cease-fire would then be followed by further talks on long-term arrangements.

Publicly, Hamas leaders in Damascus and in Gaza are talking tough. After meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the Syrian-based Mohamed Nasr said, “Our position is clear: End the aggression, withdraw from Gaza; open the crossing points, especially Rafah; [and] a total lifting of the blockade.” And when last heard from, Mahmoud Zahar, in Gaza, declared that his men would confront and defeat the IDF.

Zahar’s bluster apart, the assumption among Israeli analysts is that Hamas is eager for a time-out.

So if a cease-fire is in the offing, Israel needs to be very clear about what it expects from such a temporary cessation of hostilities. It must also adhere to the larger strategy of asphyxiating Hamas in the fullness of time.

For now, Israel must insist that:

• the smuggling of weapons, munitions, terrorists and contraband via tunnels below the Philadelphi Corridor not be allowed to resume. If it does, all our efforts in the current fighting will have been in vain.

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland has recommended widening the corridor on both sides of the border and declaring it a closed military zone. This would require Egypt to be fully on board, and financial backing from the international community to relocate those displaced by the need to create a cordon sanitaire.

Meanwhile, Israel must reserve the right to continue military operations against the tunnels.

• the security reality be changed. The purpose of the IDF operation was to deter Hamas from attacking. If the Palestinians violate the cease-fire by firing, tunneling, smuggling or manufacturing weapons, Israel must enjoy the freedom to retaliate, and in a timely fashion.

• prior to implementing any cease-fire, Gilad Schalit be freed in exchange for Hamas gunmen taken in the current operation; plus, perhaps, others captured subsequent to his kidnapping. Israel will never have more leverage to free him than it has now.

• the mandate for any international forces that would police the crossing points explicitly give them the kind of enforcement authority that earlier EU “monitors” lacked. If not, their presence would be meaningless and Israel should oppose permanent opening of the crossings.

The cabinet must not lose sight of the fact that the goal of this operation was not a cease-fire, but to stop Hamas terror.

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Mideast Peace Rests With Arabs, Not U.S., Europe:

Commentary by Bernard Lewis

Bloomberg, Jan. 6

The current fighting in the Gaza Strip raises again, in an acute but familiar form, the agonizing question: What kind of accommodation is possible, if ever, between Israel and the Arabs?

For a long time it was generally assumed, in the region and elsewhere, that peace was impossible, and that the Arabs’ struggle against Israel would continue until they achieved their aim of destroying the Jewish state. Meanwhile, Israel could survive and even serve a useful purpose as the one licensed grievance in the various Arab dictatorships, providing a relatively harmless outlet for resentment and anger that might otherwise be directed inward. In this phase, the only peace that could be expected was the peace of the grave.

The more recent history of the Middle East shows a significant change and, notably, two possible paths toward peace. One of them is limited and therefore more feasible; the other is comprehensive and therefore remote and problematic.

One approach to peace is exemplified by the policies of Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt until his assassination in 1981. He sought peace and publicly declared his willingness even to go to Jerusalem. Sadat did not take these measures because he was suddenly persuaded of the merits of Zionism. His reason was more practical and immediate — his awareness, shared by a growing number of his compatriots, that Egypt was rapidly becoming a Soviet colony. Already the Soviet presence in Egypt was more widespread and more obtrusive than the British had been.

Sadat’s Peace Initiative

Sadat realized that, on the best estimate of Israel’s power and the worst estimate of its intentions, Israel was far less a danger to Egypt than the Soviet Union was. He therefore decided on his epoch-making peace initiative.

Despite many difficulties, the 1979 peace accord signed by Egypt and Israel has endured ever since — at best cool, sometimes frosty, but preserved for the mutual advantage of both sides. It was even extended with the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1994 and informal dialogue between Israel and some Arab governments.

In Iran, Sadat’s murderer is venerated as a hero of Islam, and a street in Tehran is named after him.

In several Arab countries at the present time, and in wider Arab circles, there is a growing perception that once again they face a danger more deadly and menacing than Israel at its worst: the threat of militant, radical Shiite Islam, directed from Iran.

Double Threat

This is seen as a double threat. Iran, a non-Arab state with a long and ancient imperial tradition, seeks to extend its rule across the Arab lands toward the Mediterranean. And it is an attempt to arouse and empower the Shiite populations in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and other Arabian states, long subject to Sunni domination. Iranian tentacles are spreading westward into Iraq and beyond by the northern route into Syria and Lebanon and by the southern route to the Palestine territories, notably Gaza.

This double threat, of Iranian empire and Shiite revolution, is seen by many Arabs, and more particularly by their leaders, as constituting a greater threat than Israel could ever pose — a threat to their very societies, their very identity. And some Arab rulers are reacting the same way that Sadat did to the Soviet threat, by looking toward Israel for a possible accommodation.

During the war in Lebanon in 2006 between Israel and the Iranian-supported Shiite militia Hezbollah, the usual Arab support for the Arab side in a conflict was strikingly absent. It was clear that some Arab governments and Arab peoples were hoping for an Israeli victory, which did not materialize. Their disappointment was palpable.

Arabs and Hamas

We see similar ambiguities over the situation in Gaza.

On the one hand, pan-Arab loyalty demands support for Gaza, under whatever type of Arab rule, against the encroaching Israelis. On the other, many see the Gaza enclave — ruled by Hamas, a Sunni group but increasingly controlled by Iran — as a mortal threat to the Sunni Arab establishment all round.

In this situation, it is not impossible that some consensus will emerge, along the lines of Sadat’s accommodation with Israel, for the maintenance of the status quo. Such a peace, like that between Egypt and Israel, would be at best cool, and always threatened by radical forces both inside and outside. But it would certainly be better than a state of war, and it could last a long time.

Signs of Democracy

The second hope for change would be the growth of real democracy in the Arab world. Though unlikely at the present time, there are signs that such a development is not impossible.

Some Arabs have even been willing to speak out and welcome Israel as a pioneer of democracy in the region, a model that could help them to develop their own democratic institutions. Some have drawn attention to the fact that the at-times- disprivileged Arab minority in the state of Israel enjoys greater freedom of complaint and dissent than any group in any Arab country. A striking example is the current wave of protests among Israeli Arabs against the Israeli action in Gaza; open, outspoken — and unpunished. This does not go unnoticed.

The expression in Arab countries of any opinions favorable to Israel is unpopular, even dangerous, and sometimes fatal. The extent to which such opinions are held is therefore problematic, to say the least. But there are clear indications that they exist, and some have been willing to risk their lives in order to express them. If they increase and lead to acceptance and cooperation between the two sides, the Middle East might once again resume its place, which it enjoyed in both ancient and medieval times, as a major center of civilization.

Outside Powers

In the past, any assessment of the prospects for peace in the region would have assigned a major, perhaps decisive, role to outside powers. This is not true today.

The U.S., no longer confronting the challenge of a global rival, and amply provided with cheap oil, is unlikely to involve itself in the messy politics of the region. Russia, no longer resigned to being marginalized, has resumed some role in the Middle East. But it remains minor, and Russia is seriously impeded by its own Islamic problems at home.

In earlier times one would have assigned a major role to Europe, but at the present day what matters is not so much the European role in the Middle East as the Middle Eastern role in Europe. A prominent Syrian intellectual recently remarked that the most important question about the future of Europe is: Will it be an Islamized Europe, or a Europeanized Islam?

The possibility remains that there will be no peace — in which case the most likely outcome for the region as a whole is a descent into chaos and mutual destruction, perhaps by that time involving an Islamized Europe, and leaving the future of the world to be shared or contested between Asia and America.

(Bernard Lewis is professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is co-author, with Buntzie Ellis Churchill, of “Islam: The Religion and the People” (2008). His 30 books have been translated into more than two dozen languages including Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Indonesian. His contribution to the understanding of Middle Eastern history has been recognized by the 15 universities that have awarded him honorary doctorates.)

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Mideast Mediators Seek Anti-Tunnel Plan

Hamas Fighters Could Use Underground Corridors to Rearm, Israeli Military Says

By Craig Whitlock

Washington Post Foreign Service, Wednesday, January 7, 2009; A09

JERUSALEM, Jan. 6 — The biggest hurdle to winning a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, according to diplomats and Israeli military officials, is a problem that has bedeviled Israel for years: how to stop Hamas from digging tunnels into Egypt in order to bring tons of rockets and other weaponry into Gaza.

Mediators are trying to come up with an anti-tunnel plan to satisfy Israel, which has said it won’t agree to a truce unless it includes concrete measures to prevent Hamas from rearming. Some of the ideas under consideration include construction of a giant underground barrier along the nine-mile border between southern Gaza and Egypt, as well as international military patrols with the authority to search for and destroy any freshly built tunnels, Israeli officials said.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who along with several other European leaders has been trying to broker a deal, said Tuesday in Jerusalem that an “immediate cease-fire” was within reach if a solution to the tunnel problem could be found.

“These circumstances focus very much around clear action to cut off the supply of arms and money through the tunnels that go from Egypt into Gaza,” Blair told BBC radio. “I think that is the one basis on which we could bring a quick halt to” the fighting, he added. “Otherwise, I think we are in for a protracted campaign.”

Israeli military officials estimated that they had blown up about half of the estimated 300 smugglers’ tunnels along the Gaza-Egyptian border since Israel began airstrikes Dec. 27.

Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said that Hamas had used the tunnels to acquire 100 tons of explosives in the past year, among other supplies. “They basically smuggle everything from people to rockets,” she said. Israel has imposed an economic blockade on Gaza since Hamas took exclusive control of the territory in June 2007, and Gazans have used the tunnels as their only means of trade with the outside world.

Israeli leaders acknowledged that the Gaza military campaign would serve only as a short-term fix and that Hamas would probably dig a new network of tunnels as soon as the Israeli military withdraws. As a result, they said, any cease-fire deal would need to include a provision for blockading the Egyptian-Gaza border, above and below ground.

“The result must mean an effective blockading of the Philadelphia route, with supervision and follow-ups,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview with the newspaper Haaretz, referring to the corridor that separates southern Gaza from Egypt.

Israel has effectively sealed off Gaza’s eastern and northern borders and closely patrols Gaza’s western side along the Mediterranean Sea. But it has accused Egypt of turning a blind eye to the tunnels in the south, even though the 1978 peace accord between Israel and Egypt limits the security forces that each country can deploy along their shared border.

Israel’s military had warned that smuggling would become a problem before it withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 and considered a variety of schemes to thwart potential tunnel diggers. The most audacious idea: an 80-foot-deep moat filled with seawater, with an estimated price tag of $250 million.

But the military nixed the moat proposal after Israel’s attorney general said he would oppose it because of fears it would contaminate Gaza’s scarce underground water supplies. A plan to dig a giant dry trench was also shelved because it would have required the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian homes along the border corridor.

Those and other plans to construct a subterranean barrier have been getting another look since Israel began its offensive in Gaza last month, officials said.

Roni Bart, a retired Israeli army colonel and a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said a Gaza barrier would cost far less and probably generate much less political controversy than the 456-mile-long security barrier — which includes fences, roads and walls — that Israel is building around much of the West Bank.

“It’s nothing compared to that,” he said. “Anything you can do to stop smuggling, by definition, weakens Hamas.”

A senior Israeli official who briefed reporters on the military campaign did not rule out the possibility that Israel would attempt to construct an underground physical barrier along the Gaza-Egypt border.

“I cannot tell you the technical solutions” we are considering, the official said. “But this has to be taken care of and we have a better chance to do it now.”

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, said Israel was open to any plans that would block Hamas from digging more tunnels.

“There are different ideas out there and the Israeli government is willing to hear the input of the international community,” he said. “This is a crucial issue for Israel. Without some sort of effective mechanism to stop the flow of armaments, there can be no sustainable calm in the south.”

Israeli officials and analysts said any cease-fire deal would hinge on cooperation from Egypt, as would construction of an underground barrier.

Israeli leaders have rejected cease-fire proposals that would involve sending international observers to Gaza, saying that such teams would be ineffective unless they had the authority to destroy tunnels or engage Hamas fighters.

“It’s clear that we don’t need monitors to tell us that ‘today, 10 tons of armaments passed through the tunnels,’ ” Regev said. “We need a mechanism that will work, but what form that might take is fluid.”

Egyptian officials haven’t said whether they would allow foreign troops or monitors on their side of the border. But they have held talks in recent days with European diplomats and Hamas delegates.

Hamas has said that it will agree to a cease-fire only if Israel agrees to reopen border crossings from Gaza and end the blockade.

Officials with the Palestinian Authority, which holds power in the West Bank and is led by political rivals of Hamas, said they favor allowing international observers into Gaza as part of a truce. But they have been reluctant to endorse a plan that would give outsiders police powers and the authority to destroy tunnels.

“If you are talking about observers that will go and shut down tunnels, they are not really observers,” Riad Malki, the Palestinian Authority foreign minister, told reporters Monday at the United Nations in New York.

Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, predicted that a solution would be elusive. He said few countries would be willing to send armed forces to Gaza. He also derided the idea of building a trench or underground wall, saying that smugglers would inevitably find a way around.

“It’s just not practical,” he said. “It would cost a lot of money. Who’s going to pay for it? America?”

He said the most effective course would be to pressure Egypt — which sees Hamas, an Islamist movement, as a political threat to its secular government — to take action on its own against smugglers. “That’s the only practical way,” he said. “All the rest is wishful thinking.”

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

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