The beginning of calm or another false dawn?

By Anshel Pfeffer, June 20, 2008

The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas which went into effect yesterday (Thursday) morning was reached via the Egyptians and is expected to culminate in a prisoner deal and the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

The agreement is limited to the next six months. In the first of four stages, both sides are expected to observe a three-day “test period” with no hostilities. If that works, at the beginning of next week Israel will gradually ease the economic closure of the Gaza Strip and allow more goods to cross over from Israel. If both sides are satisfied by the ceasefire, intensified negotiations are to take place in Cairo over a prisoner deal in which Israel is expected to release hundreds of Palestinians in exchange for Sergeant Gilad Shalit, captured two years ago. Once the talks are under way, and if the ceasefire holds, Israel will consider the opening of the Rafah crossing.

Both sides have made significant concessions. Israel agreed to the ceasefire without receiving any clear commitment from the Palestinians on the release of Sgt Shalit, and Hamas has not undertaken to control the other Palestinian organisations, though the Egyptian have guaranteed this. Israel refused Hamas demands over any kind of curtailment of its operations in the West Bank.

An Israeli soldier directs a tank on the Gaza border on the eve of the ceasefire

On Wednesday, the day before the ceasefire took effect, the IDF gradually limited its operations around Gaza, and the Palestinians continued sporadic rocket-firing at Israeli territory, without casualties. Israeli security forces were on high alert for a terror attack in the last hours before the ceasefire.

Over the last few months, there were several moments when it seemed that a large-scale military operation by Israel against Hamas’s Kassam infrastructure was imminent. But in the end it did not happen due to opposition in the IDF high command; the generals were of the opinion that any operation that would be followed by a pullback to the border-fence could not prevent firing for long.

Another contributing factor was the lack of international support, despite Israeli diplomatic efforts. Israel expected that at least the United States would give its tacit approval, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been adamant in opposing anything that might jeopardise the negotiations between Israel and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s main worry now is that the ceasefire will prove fragile and short-lived, while allowing Hamas time to build up its military capabilities. In a visit this week by President Shimon Peres to the western Negev, he was briefed by senior officers who reported on a significant improvement in Hamas’s armament industry, aided by Iranian-trained engineers and chemists.

The officers told Mr Peres that a year after Hamas violently took control of Gaza, they have consolidated their hold on the medical, educational and municipal establishments and that everyone from doctors and teachers to rubbish-collectors are seen by the locals as working for Hamas.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Wednesday: “We have no illusions, this ceasefire, whatever you call it, is fragile and could be short-lived. Hamas and the other terror organisations working for it have not changed their nature and become peace-seekers. They are bloodthirsty terrorists who are still doing everything in their power to harm innocent Israeli citizens.

“We did not conduct talks with any terror organisation. I want to make it clear, Hamas is the address in Gaza and will bear responsibility for every breach of the peace.”

Israeli politicians, both in the opposition and the government, attacked the deal, branding it a capitulation to Hamas. Eli Yishai, the Deputy Prime Minister, and leader of Shas called the ceasefire “an illusion”.

Last updated: 4:38pm, September 23 2009