More Gaza Dilemmas

Feb 13, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

February 13, 2008
Number 02/08 #05

The debate in Israel about how to react to the constant threats and rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza continues to be very intense. (Leslie Susser summarises some of this debate here.) A major military operation into Gaza is being again debated, as are other methods, such as targeted attacks on the Hamas political leadership, and small temporary cuts to electricity supplies. Meanwhile, efforts to find a solution to controlling the Gaza border with Egypt are also ongoing. This Update features some articles shedding light on these Gaza debates and issues.

First up, the dovish left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz makes the case that if something is not done soon, Israel will have no choice but to engage in a large-scale military operation into the Gaza Strip. It recalls the history of the current impasse, including Israel’s unilateral pull-out from Gaza, and the Palestinian response, and how detrimental to peace negotiations the present situation is. For the paper’s full argument about that asking for continual Israeli restraint in responding to the constant provocations from Gaza is untenable, CLICK HERE.  Also putting forward the case for the unreasonableness of demands that Israel constantly refrain from responding to the Hamas-encouraged attacks from Gaza is American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris. By contrast, the Jerusalem Post editorialises for direct attacks on the Hamas leadership and greater pressure on Egypt to stop arms flows into Gaza, a position shared by Middle East specialist and blogger Eric Trager. Also calling for targeting Hamas leaders is Alex Fishman of Yediot Ahronot. 

Next up, Zvi Bar’el of Haaretz outlines the Egyptian reaction of recent weeks, as negotiations continue about arrangements for the border. He says the Egyptians have successfully halted the media attack orchestrated against them by Hamas as part of the Gaza breakout, and Hamas is now more hated by leading Egyptian opinion-makers than Israel. He says Egypt is currently standing firm in the face of Hamas demands to be given control over border crossings with Egypt, in the face of considerable pressure, but that a compromise deal which will grant something to Hamas, while preserving a role for the Palestinian Authority, is probably likely in the long run. For more on how the Egyptians are dealing with this problem CLICK HERE. In further examples of the attitude noted by Bar’el, the Egyptian foreign minister threatened to “break the legs” of any Palestinians who cross the border, and some comment on the lack of international reaction to this threat is here. Meanwhile, the Egyptians are also complaining that Palestinians flooded Sinai with counterfeit money and illegally tried to buy up local land, and are questioning the many Egyptians who tried to enter Gaza to support Hamas. They also say Hamas tried to abduct Egyptian soldiers. 

Last but not least, veteran Middle East mediator Dennis Ross assesses the outcome and diplomatic imperatives of the recent events in and around Gaza and offers some advice to the US administration. He says that while Hamas gained a public relations victory, its fundamental weakness remains, and diplomacy is needed that should seek to deny Hamas a dangerous role on the border. He says the  goal should also be to put the PA in charge of the border crossings, and end the current situation where Gaza gets its supplies, electricity and fuel from Israel even as it launches war on Israel. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Also, Israeli academic Dror Ze’evi argues in more depth that Hamas PR achievements in the Gaza breakout were fleeting, and counter-productive overall.

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Editorial: Restraint is not possible

By Haaretz  11/02/2008    

The firing of Qassam rockets against Sderot and the nearby kibbutzim is not stopping and is extracting a heavy price in terms of fear and blood. Responsibility for the shooting from the Gaza Strip, which has been going on for seven years – both before and after the disengagement from the Strip – falls on the Palestinians. Were it not for the shooting, Israel would not respond.

For the past eight months Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip alone, and it is no longer possible to explain away the shooting as due to a lack of control over rogue organizations. The time has come for the Palestinians to ask themselves and their leadership about the direction they are heading. Are the West Bank and the Gaza Strip still one entity, aspiring to establish an independent state alongside Israel? Is it possible that in all situations, Israel will hold negotiations for the establishment of such a state while Hamas is shooting at it? Has Hamas decided to foil a peace agreement and chosen for its people the option of continuous war?

Israel left the Gaza Strip in the summer 2005 to signal the start of an end to the occupation. Kadima was set up after leading figures in Likud, with Ariel Sharon at their head, decided to withdraw from the Greater Land of Israel to more secure and limited borders. The party’s political platform also included a withdrawal from the West Bank, dividing the land into two states for two peoples and an evacuation of settlements. In order to show the seriousness of its intentions, settlements from Gush Katif and northern Samaria were evacuated without an agreement. 

The ball passed to the Palestinian court, where it has been stuck after the Palestinians elected Hamas, which opposes a peace agreement with Israel. Instead of Gaza becoming the cornerstone for a Palestinian state, it has become a hostile entity under siege.

The disengagement was not a mistake, but a necessary move of vision and hope. Hamas undermined the hope for a shared future and opted to preserve, as its declared policy, its “resistance” to the existence of the State of Israel, and by extension continue its path of violence. While Israel is trying to correct its historic error of settling in the heart of the Palestinian population by converging into old-new borders of a more ethical democracy, the Palestinians elected Hamas, which is not willing to compromise. The Qassam attacks are not proof that the disengagement failed, but that the Hamas rule is leading the Palestinians into a new round of an unnecessary war. While Mahmoud Abbas is trying to preserve, with the skin of his teeth, a channel of dialogue with Israel, one that will lead to an agreement, Hamas and the other groups are making great efforts to foil any chance for a solution.

If the limited military actions Israel is undertaking in an effort to bring an end to the Qassam rockets will not bring an end to the shooting; if the moderate states, and first and foremost Egypt and Jordan fail to contain Hamas – Israel will have no option but to embark on a broad military operation.

The Israel Defense Forces raison d’etre is to protect the country’s citizens from attack. Even if the success of a military operation is not guaranteed, that concern must not prevent the government from doing what is necessary in order to protect the lives of its citizens and the state’s border. The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is political, and should always be pursued. At the same time, Israel must prove that the blood of its citizens cannot be forfeited – so that in the future, its neighbors will abide by the agreements to which they have committed.

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The cross(ing) Cairo has to bear

By Zvi Bar’el

Haaretz, Feb. 10. 2008

“The revolutionary extremist has a strategy that states: ‘Always participate in dialogue. And when you reach an agreement, sign it. After that, rise from your chair and place several warm kisses on the cheek of your adversary. Then give him a blow and demand another dialogue. Always prepare for the next dialogue.” That is how the sharp Egyptian playwright Ali Salem this week mocked the leaders of Hamas, who keep asking for a dialogue, once with the Egyptians and then again with the Palestinian Authority. And each time it is a dialogue without prior conditions.

Salem’s opinion piece, which appeared in Asharq Alawsat, a newspaper published in London but which is owned and censored by Saudi Arabians, indicates that it is not just Egypt that is angry with Hamas. Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s partner in the political process, is also very disgruntled.

Salem is just one in a long list of Egyptian intellectuals who have vehemently attacked Hamas’ behavior – in particular its attacks on Egyptian soldiers and policemen along the border. It seems as though if someone were to ask the Egyptians to compare the degree of their hostility toward Israel with that toward Hamas, Hamas would come out the worse.   

An indication of this sentiment was actually provided by the bureau of President Hosni Mubarak, who is fed up with the reports of Al Jazeera – which was followed by other Arab channels and media – about how terrible the situation is in Gaza. The reports about the incompetence of the Arab countries, and in particular neighboring Egypt, have pushed the latter into a corner. The country’s “open fence” policy was a result of this sense of siege.

That was until it transpired that the Gazans streaming into Sinai were not merely interested in food and fuel, but that they were also sending terror squads into the peninsula. Zakaria Azmi, the head of the presidential bureau, hastily reported to the Egyptian parliament that “30 terrorist squads were caught. They had crossed the border from Gaza and were on their way to Bani Suweif, carrying suicide belts.”

Azmi was deliberate in reporting these facts to parliament. After all, it was from this very body that the Muslim Brotherhood had raised its voice in loud protest against Egypt’s tight-fisted policy toward Gaza. Mubarak had even been accused of collaborating with the Israeli blockade of the Strip.

With one wave of the hand, Mubarak shook up the “nationalist” press owned by the government and instructed it to contain and confront the media attack on Egypt, especially that of Al Jazeera. Sympathy for the Palestinians is one thing, but love of the Egyptian motherland comes first. The result could be seen immediately. As such, the magazine Rose El-Youssef wondered why the media had ignored the fact that “armed terrorists had crossed the border into Egypt.”

Osama Soraya, the editor of Al- Ahram, wrote that, “The cruelty of Israel, its justifications and the force that supports them, are well known indeed, but Hamas’ position, and the chain of suffering that emanates from it, continues to be unjustified.” Soraya, who is aware of the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, adds that it is possible Hamas is being supported by some body that would like to leave this Islamic movement on the map – especially in view of the fact that “the influence of Islamic political movements in many of the countries of the region is clearly on the decline.”

And Al-Akhbar’s editor in chief, Mohammed Barakat, issued a clear warning to Hamas not to become a pawn in Israel’s hands by transferring responsibility for what is happening in Gaza into Egyptian hands. Ibrahim Mansour, editor of the opposition paper Al-Dustour, was left with no choice but to summarize that, “The government press takes pains to smash the sympathy of all strata of the Egyptian public for their brethren in Gaza. No one is asking any longer what the reason was for breaking through the fence and why the Arab countries cooperated with this siege.”

Applying the brakes

Meanwhile, it seems as though Egypt has successfully overcome the media attack launched against it. The breaking down of the border fence, which was widely viewed as an act of bravery in the face of the Israeli blockade and immediately turned into a business opportunity for the shopkeepers of the Egyptian towns of el-Arish and Rafah, also clearly showed the danger that had been brought to Egypt’s threshold. The wounding of Egyptian policemen, the large photo of a bearded Hamas man aiming a revolver at the head of an Egyptian citizen who tried to cross over into Gaza, this week’s suicide bombing in Dimona and the reports about terrorist squads in Sinai have all had an effect.

Egypt now faces a reality that requires it to apply the brakes to two developments – Hamas’ intention to set up a Palestinian entity in Gaza, independent but reliant on Egypt, thereby making the latter responsible for the quality of life in the Strip; and Israel’s desire to transfer responsibility for security on the Gaza border on the shoulders of President Mubarak.

The words of Ahmed Youssef, an adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who said that Gaza wanted to break away from Israel, and the proposal from exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who was summoned to Cairo last week, by which Hamas would sign a separate border crossing agreement with Egypt, met with a decisive Egyptian response. Egypt made it clear to Hamas that any arrangement on the Rafah crossing would be based on the agreement that was signed in 2005 – meaning complete partnership with the Palestinian Authority, covert supervision by Israel via electronic devices, and the presence of European Union representatives.

Presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad announced that Egypt had no intention of “stretching” the Palestinian presence from Gaza into its own territory, allowing the refugees from Gaza to settle in the Sinai. “We have freed every bit of our land in war and in peace. We are not planning to relinquish any part of it, nor are we planning to add to it any territory outside Egyptian soil, neither in Gaza nor in the Negev,” Awad clarified.

The Hamas representatives who returned to the Strip from Egypt last weekend still tried to present their meeting with the Egyptian leadership as a success, claiming that their interlocutors had recognized the role of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and were in effect holding negotiations with the group about arrangements for crossing between Gaza and Egypt. But the Egyptian denials and the public presentation of the Egyptian point of view made it clear that Hamas had in fact achieved very little in Egypt.

Not without Europe

Hamas’ attempt to reach an agreement with Egypt about the border crossing without European representation has not gone well either. Egypt, which is not a signatory to the crossing point agreement, is not interested in forgoing the Europeans, without whom Gaza could resemble an independent entity. This Egyptian position was aimed at preventing Israel from shedding its responsibility for Gaza, thereby strengthening the Strip’s dependence on Egypt. True, Egypt is happy to provide Gaza with goods and services in return for payment – but it doesn’t want to become the patron of one and a half million civilians.

According to Egyptian sources, Javier Solana, the EU’s envoy for foreign affairs, has agreed to renew the activities of the European supervisors at the Rafah crossing, on condition that there be a body responsible for protecting the representatives and ready to cooperate with them. By “responsible body,” he is referring to a representative of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and not Hamas.

But this is exactly where Mubarak’s problem lies. That same “responsible body” is unable to get to the crossing points without coming into conflict with Hamas, which controls the area. Hamas is prepared to cooperate with the PA but the PA is not prepared to grant Hamas the status of a partner without first reaching an agreement on all the other conditions Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has laid down – which include returning the situation in Gaza to its pre-June 2007 state and for Hamas to issue an apology for conquering Gaza and killing Palestinians in the process.

For its part, Hamas – as playwright Ali Salem wryly wrote – is prepared for a dialogue, provided that it leads to the creation of a national unity government, a redistribution of positions of power between Hamas and Fatah, and a reorganization of Fatah in such a manner that Hamas would be ensured a decisive say in that organization.

The conditions set by both the PA and Hamas are currently standing in the way of a real breakthrough. But Egypt is under pressure and it understands that if the issue of the border crossings is not resolved soon, it will face another invasion of Palestinians in the future, and this time, the clashes between Hamas and Egypt are likely to be much more violent.

All the parties involved are currently busy outlining a new technical plan for the border agreement, whose main points include a renunciation of an Israeli presence (even a purely electronic one) at the crossing, so as to overcome Hamas’ opposition to the plan; the establishment of a joint Fatah-Hamas task force responsible for the crossing points, which will appease Abbas, who wants agreement on all the paragraphs; and a European presence, which will satisfy the Egyptians.

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Gaza, Stripped

By Dennis Ross
New Republic Online, February 12, 2008

In the wake of Hamas blowing up the border fence between Egypt and Gaza the images of Palestinians from Gaza streaming across the border into Egypt were unsettling to the Israelis, Egyptians, Palestinian Authority, and Bush Administration. Only Hamas benefited from the images. In breaking down the wall sealing the Sinai from Gaza, Hamas seemed to liberate Palestinians besieged in Gaza and outmaneuvered all those trying to build pressure on it to change its behavior.

For Israel, a policy of isolation and containment of Hamas, designed both to pressure Hamas to stop rocket fire and show it could not succeed, came crashing down. For Egypt, the desire to keep the contagion of an Islamist Palestinian neighbor from seeping into it was suddenly undone; Egypt does not mind Israel looking like it inflicts pain on Palestinians, but it is something else for it to do so before its own public and the Arab world.

For Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, the last thing they need is for Hamas to look like it is gaining and can outmaneuver its stronger neighbors. And, for the Bush Administration, its aim has been to help the PA succeed in the West Bank and have that stand in stark contrast with Hamas’s failures in Gaza. But in Palestinian eyes, who looks successful now?

Still, it was not necessarily all gain for Hamas. The irony of Palestinians literally streaming out of Gaza was not lost on some Arab observers. In recent days, Abd Al Rahman Al Rashed, the director of al Arabiya television, and Tariq Alhomayed, the editor of Al Sharq Al Awsat, both drew attention to the failures of Hamas governance; the utter illogic of its rocket-firing policy, for which Palestinians a heavy price; and Hamas’ terrible indifference to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.

Hamas may well have gained a brief public relations advantage by breaching the wall separating Gaza from the Sinai, and probably also gained leverage against Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. But its fundamental weakness remains. The question now is how to make sure that Egypt’s desire to control the border again does not strengthen Hamas in its struggle with the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas is already insisting that the old border arrangements be replaced with Hamas sharing control with Egypt, without E.U. monitors or Israel being able to maintain its off-site monitoring. The good news is that so far Egypt is not buying; while it is calling for understandings between the PA and Hamas, it also seems to accept — at least for now — that the PA should be in the border crossings and EU monitors should maintain their presence. Moreover, Egypt is showing some very real concern about the effects on its own security with the breach in the wall; not only is Egypt not permitting the restocking of stores in El Arish and Rafah and rebuilding the fence, but the Egyptian press is also reporting that 3,000 Palestinians have been arrested, some with arms and explosives, in places like Suez City far removed from the border — suggesting that the regime wants the public to see that Palestinians are causing security problems for Egypt.

Still, resealing the border is Egypt’s first priority, and must not be traded for a greater Hamas role at the border. The Bush Administration needs to do more than only remind Egypt in public that it has responsibilities. Privately, it needs to make clear that the U.S. will be closely watching and holding Egypt accountable. Similarly, we need to emphasize that how the Egyptians handle their responsibilities will affect whether a peace deal may be achievable between Israelis and Palestinians. After all, Egypt made commitments to Israel at the time of its withdrawal from Gaza. Those commitments on smuggling and the border have not been fulfilled; given that history, if Egypt now finds a way to allow Hamas to gain far more control over the border and acquiesce about Hamas being able to bring whoever and whatever it wants into Gaza, Israel will not only face a greater threat but also conclude that commitments made by others on security amount to little more than slogans.

All this should remind the administration that its stakes are high in helping to manage the outcome of the Egyptian, Hamas, and PA discussions now taking place. It should not be a passive observer waiting to be informed. It should be outlining acceptable outcomes and also coordinating closely with Abbas. And, it should do so with a broader policy approach in mind-one that might take the current crisis and produce a better approach to Gaza.

What are the key elements to such an approach? First, agree that the objective is to have the PA assume responsibility for control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and EU monitors; Abbas wants his presidential guard to be placed at this as well as the other crossing points from Gaza into Israel. He needs to offer a plan of how many forces can be deployed, when they will be deployed, what their role will be and how they will function.

Second, Israel should, in the right circumstances, act on Prime Minister Olmert’s commitment in principle to allow the PA to run the crossing points connecting Gaza and Israel. Nothing has happened yet, because the Israeli military has raised questions about how the PA can assure that the crossing points won’t become transmission belts for the smuggling of bombs or explosives and at the same time run the Qarne and Erez crossing points when Hamas has checkpoints within 100-200 meters of each site. Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad have responded by saying that they would bring outsiders credible to Israel to check all cargo and materials transiting the sites. Fayyad has also said that the PA will run the sites without regard to Hamas, letting Hamas either allow such an arrangement to work or be responsible for its failure. While it may be worth testing this proposition, it is hard to believe that PA forces within a few meters of Hamas armed militia won’t feel the need to coordinate in some fashion. Regardless, the PA would get credit for making commerce possible.

Third, recognizing that the PA will probably have to coordinate with Hamas, Israel should tie its acceptance of the PA running the crossing points to Hamas stopping all the rocket and mortar fire. Otherwise, allowing the PA to run the crossing points will mean very little. Almost certainly if the rocket fire continues Israel will be launching incursions to deal with it and invariably that will lead to closing crossing points either because the Israelis do it or because Hamas may fire on them in response to the incursions. Ultimately, it is not practical to be reopening the crossing points under PA control if Hamas does not accept that it must stop the rocket fire. Would Hamas consider doing so? The Israelis are likely to agree to stop targeting Hamas officials if the rocket fire stops. Plus, Hamas is under pressure from the private sector in Gaza to make commerce possible. So it may well do so.

Lastly, Israel needs to adopt a different posture toward Gaza. Trying to manipulate the supply of electricity, fuel, and water as a way of pressuring Hamas has not worked; worse, it has focused the attention on Israel’s behavior, not Hamas’s rocket fire into Israel. Israel should now publicly declare that it will not punish the Palestinian people in Gaza and therefore will not disrupt supplies of electricity or water. But Israel should also state that it cannot be expected to be responsible for providing electricity and water to those who try to kill Israelis on a daily basis. No one else in the international community would accept such a situation. As such, Israel will give the international community six or even nine months to come up with alternatives to the supply coming from Israel and at that point Israel will no longer provide Palestinians with their fuel, their food, or their electricity.

This would put the onus and responsibility back on Hamas for life in Gaza. It would require the international community to put far more pressure on Hamas to act responsibly and to make it possible for the outside world to meet Palestinian needs in Gaza. While the current crisis is certainly not welcome, the task of statecraft is now to change the dynamics in Gaza — and not in a way that favors Hamas.

Dennis Ross is counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.

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