Truce and promise

Print edition : July 18, 2008

A Palestinian boy gets ready to join a protest against fuel shortage, in Gaza City on May 10. - SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS

WEST ASIA: The six-month ceasefire with Hamas obliges Israel to relax the punitive sanctions on Gaza that have been in force for a year.

A TRUCE between the Israeli government and Hamas came into effect on June 19, ending at least for the time being a period of unmitigated violence and suffering for the one and a half million people of Gaza.

The truce has been agreed upon for a six-month period. The Egyptian-brokered deal, however, excludes the West Bank. This has made Palestinians question Israels commitment to the truce. If Israeli forces continue with their military operations and keep on targeting Palestinian civilians and political figures in the West Bank, the only option for the resistance groups in Gaza will be to resort to rocket fire and guerilla attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his senior Ministers have expressed their scepticism about the ceasefire lasting for six months.

The Israeli government and the Hamas leadership have agreed to continue with the negotiations regarding the release of an Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, captured two years ago by Hamas. That kidnapping resulted in a large-scale attack on civilian targets by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza.

The key player in the recently-negotiated deal was the chief of Egyptian Intelligence, Omar Suleiman. It took four months of hectic diplomatic activity by the Egyptians to succeed in the mediation effort.

The breaching of the Gaza border fence with Egypt at the beginning of the year had led to unprecedented scenes. Gazans, in their thousands, rushed out to buy essentials from across the border. The Egyptian government, which initially found the situation difficult to control, wants to ensure that the Gazans do not resort to desperate measures again.

The new pact obliges Israel to relax the punitive sanctions on Gaza that have been in force since the Hamas took power there a year ago. The Israelis initially demanded the immediate release of Shalit as a pre-condition for truce.

Hamas insists that Shalit will only be released as part of a general prisoner exchange deal with Israel and not as part of the current ceasefire agreement. Thousands of Palestinian prisoners have been languishing in Israeli jails for years, many of them rounded up on the mere suspicion of being resistance fighters.

GAZA is in the grip of shortages, particularly of fuel. Here a Palestinian woman in Gaza City with a highly scarce commodity.-HATEM MOUS/AP

Olmert has warned that if the ceasefire collapses, Israel will launch a full-scale invasion of Gaza. Just two days before the ceasefire came into effect, Israeli forces killed 10 resistance fighters belonging to the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The Islamic Jihad, in a statement, emphasised that despite its reservations over the truce agreement it would not stand in the way out of concern for Palestinian unity.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, expressed confidence that all the Palestinian factions in Gaza would respect the deal out of a sense of national responsibility. He called on Israel to lift its siege on the Palestinian people and reopen the border crossings. In a year of fighting, more than 700 Palestinians and 18 Israelis were killed. Though the Palestinians faced the brunt of the attacks from the powerful Israeli war machine, rocket attacks from Gaza also left much of southern Israel constantly on the edge.

Hamas officials have said that the onus is on Israel to keep the peace, claiming that their administration in Gaza will ensure that all the Palestinian factions adhere to the agreement. Many Arab commentators have concluded that Israel will use the ceasefire to establish more facts on the ground by building more illegal settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

The Hamas spokesperson in Gaza, Salah al-Bardawi, struck a more optimistic note. He told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he did not rule out the possibility of a peace agreement between Israel and Hamas after the ceasefire agreement. He said that the agreement was a historic opportunity for Israel and for all the sides involved to live in peace and to build a future for the next generations. If the ceasefire holds, negotiators in the final stage will discuss the demand by Hamas that a major border crossing with Egypt be reopened.

The agreement has led to the partial opening of the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border. However, with the Israeli blockade still in place, the people of Gaza continue to live in abysmal conditions. Gazans hope that the truce will give them some respite. The year-long blockade had turned Gaza into a living hell. The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees described the truce as a positive step. The agency expressed hope that the construction of schools, hospitals and residential houses would start again.

For the past one year Gazans have been denied the basic right of freedom of movement by the Israeli government. Palestinians are not even permitted to leave the Gaza Strip for medical treatment abroad. More than 200 Palestinians in need of urgent medical attention have died after being denied passage. A substantial number of those who died were children. Hundreds of Gazan students, who got admissions in foreign universities, including United States universities, have been denied permission to leave the territory.

Israel has been severely rationing oil in Gaza. For most of the past one year Gaza has gone without electricity for long periods. Cooking oil, a scarce commodity in Gaza, is being used to run vehicles. Because of the shortage of transport, ordinary Gazans have to walk long distances to work.

Palestinians detained during an Israeli military operation, at an army base near the southern Gaza Strip on May 14. Israel frequently raids the coastal enclave in what it calls an effort to stop cross-border rocket attacks.-AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Shops have closed down because of a shortage of essential commodities. Israels policies have led to the total collapse of the Gazan economy, making it completely dependent on international aid. Malnutrition has become widespread, with children and the aged being the most affected. International organisations and many governments have described Israels policies towards the people of Gaza as collective punishment.

The U.S. government and the European Union have turned a blind eye to the atrocities being committed almost on a daily basis in Gaza by the IDF. In fact, the George W. Bush administration expressed its unhappiness with the Israeli government for entering into the truce agreement. Bush, during his visit to the region in May, singled out Hamas and Hizbollah as terrorist organisations that have to be isolated.

With Bush confined to lame-duck status, even Israel, the U.S. closest ally, seems unwilling to listen to Washington. Israel, after having reached a deal with Hamas, is now talking to Syria and indirectly to Hizbollah in Lebanon.

The Bush administration has been trying to ostracise Syria and Hizbollah for some time now, but there are very few takers for its views on West Asia even among staunch allies in the E.U. The consensus in the international community is that Hamas and Hizbollah should be diplomatically engaged.

Meanwhile, there is some positive news emerging about the prospects for Palestinian unity. In the first week of June, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for a comprehensive national dialogue with Hamas. For most of the past 12 months the two sides have hardly been on talking terms.

Haniyeh welcomed Abbas statement immediately and urged him to take swift steps to facilitate a fruitful dialogue. He also called for an immediate end to the war of words between the two sides. Both sides have pledged to end the year-long propaganda war after the statements by Abbas and Haniyeh.

Observers are of the opinion that Abbas has finally realised that the Bush administration will not deliver on its promise to implement a two-state solution by the end of the year. The Bush administrations tacit support for the aggressive expansion policies of the Israeli government is a another cause for disillusionment for the Fatah faction led by Abbas.

One Fatah official told Al Ahram, the Egyptian newspaper, that many in his organisation felt that the U.S. and Israel were utilising the Fatah-Hamas rift to place the Palestinian Authority under American-Israeli tutelage and cripple its ability to recover Palestinian rights.

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