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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: The Gaza ceasefire – small opportunity amidst growing threats

Egyptian sources announced on Tuesday a ceasefire agreement that will facilitate the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip. Israel has officially confirmed that it will come into effect on Thursday morning, 6:00 am Israel time. Head of the Israeli Defence Ministry’s military-political bureau, Amos Gilead, travelled to Cairo on Tuesday night for the second time this week to finalise the deal.

In the context of the agreement, several questions require close attention: what is the nature of the proposed agreement and what will it include? Does this reflect any change in Israel’s policy towards Hamas? What are the gains hoped to be made by the different parties? How does this affect internal Palestinian politics, how does this agreement reflect broader regional developments and how may it affect these processes?

The Egyptian-brokered agreement: terms and details

The ceasefire is between two sides, neither of whom recognises the other’s legitimacy. The Egyptian-brokered agreement therefore constitutes a series of unofficial understandings between the sides, which will be founded on a mutual suspension of offensive activities. In this sense, the agreement will in fact constitute a lull in hostilities, referred to in Arabic as a ‘tahdiya’, whose durability will ultimately depend on the sides’ ability to implement the terms of the agreement:

Suspension of hostilities

Hamas will be expected to ensure that all the Palestinian factions operating in the Gaza Strip – including Islamic Jihad to the smaller, clan-affiliated groups – will halt all rocket fire, mortar and sniper attacks against Israeli targets. At the same time, the IDF will be instructed to halt all ground and air operations against terror targets in the Gaza Strip. In the first stage, the agreement will be applicable only to the Gaza areas and will not include the West Bank; at a future time, the agreement may apply to the West Bank.

Relaxation of restrictions on Gaza’s border crossings

The agreement will lead immediately to an increase in the humanitarian aid and other products entering Gaza from Israel, including food, clothing and building materials. Assuming the agreement takes hold successfully, a more extensive set of arrangements, relating also to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, will come onto the table.

The success of the agreement beyond the first few days will depend heavily on Israel’s satisfaction with two other aspects of the deal. Firstly, Israel needs to see early and significant progress towards a deal to bring about the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit’s family received another sign of life from Shalit a week ago and the Israeli government cannot be seen to be relegating the issue.

Negotiations over a prisoner exchange deal are scheduled to begin three days after the ceasefire takes effect. If residents of Israel’s south are allowed to return to some normal routine after long months of ongoing rocket threats, the difficult step of releasing convicted terrorists in return for Shalit may be easier for the Israeli government and public. As it stands, Israel has already agreed to some of the prisoners listed by Hamas for release and may be willing to further compromise to see Shalit’s safe return after almost two years in Gaza.

The second issue regards the ongoing smuggling carried out between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Mostly using underground tunnels, terror organisations have been able to smuggle large amounts of weapons, ammunition, money and operatives. Understanding that it will be impossible to force the cessation of smuggling through the current agreement, Israel is focusing its efforts on the Egyptian leadership. Further progress on opening the crossing points will depend on Israel’s intelligence assessment that weapons smuggling into the Strip has been substantially reduced.

This issue is of special significance given the possible opening of the Rafah crossing. The crossing has been largely closed since June 2006, when EU monitors manning the crossing fled the site after coming under fire during clashes between Hamas and Fatah. Until sufficient arrangements are made for the strict monitoring of goods and people going through the crossing, Israel fears Hamas and other organisations will use its opening for large-scale smuggling of weapons and operatives.

In sum, the brokered agreement will not provide solutions to all the problems involved in the tense situation in the Gaza Strip, nor does it intend to. Its main purpose is to provide a cessation of violence, and only after this fundamental condition is met will further issues be addressed.

Gains and losses: assessing the consequences of the current agreement

Although the agreement involves Israel and the Palestinian factions, it is also likely to have significant effect on broader regional aspects. The following looks briefly at the considerations that led the sides during the negotiations and the possible consequences it may have on their future steps.

Israel

Israel continues to face an ongoing dilemma with regards to the appropriate approach towards Palestinian aggression emanating from the Gaza Strip. Israel has an interest in finding a peaceful solution for Gaza and to provide its residents with hope for the future. This logic formed part of the plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, as there was much optimism that this withdrawal would provide an opportunity for significant improvement for life in Gaza. However, terrorists have exploited this situation and have used it to establish unprecedented control. This, in turn, was translated into ongoing terror attacks, which made use of a large ballistic arsenal against Israeli communities. The situation deteriorated further after the Hamas takeover in June 2006.

Knowing it cannot abandon its population to the threat of rockets, mortar shells and sniper fire, Israel has tried a wide range of tactics against terror infrastructure and operatives in the Strip in an attempt to suppress the rocket fire.  An extended military operation triggered by the kidnap of Shalit came to an end in November 2006, and the use of artillery aimed at the source of rocket attacks was abandoned due to the undue risk it presented to Gaza’s civilian population. Since then, Israel has been using limited ground operations and air strikes. However, the government faces pressure from large sections of the public and the political establishment to consider a large-scale ground operation to confront the terror activities over an extended period of time. Yet an operation of this sort would be costly in human life on both sides, has limited potential to curb the ballistic threat and has no clear exit strategy at this stage.

Furthermore, sources in Jerusalem are convinced that if the current agreement collapses as a result of a dramatic provocation from Hamas, the grounds for such an operation will be more acceptable to the international community and criticism less harsh.

Hamas

Hamas has its own interest in reaching a ceasefire at this point. Most importantly, the agreement fortifies their control of the Gaza Strip and solidifies the situation that began in June 2006, when the organisation took control of the area. By doing so, Hamas is able to maintain its grip on the Strip while Fatah and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas watch from the West Bank.

Hamas will do everything possible to use this development to enhance its popularity in the Palestinian street, both in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas draws popularity from its image as the authentic ‘resistance’ to the occupation. A ceasefire deal with Israel therefore poses a risk to its public image within the territories and it will do its best to spin the development as a military triumph in which they were able to force Israel into a ceasefire and deter an invasion. They will be in a strong position to claim the ceasefire as a success if the agreement does indeed lead to a significant relaxation of restrictions on border crossings.

Fatah and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas

One of the main factors holding Israel back from a ceasefire deal with Hamas has been the fear that such an agreement will undermine the Fatah movement and PA Chairman Abbas. Until recently, Hamas and Fatah have been in fierce rivalry and Israel’s strategy has been to bolster Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas and isolate Hamas. However, channels of communication between Fatah and Hamas have reopened in recent weeks, making it easier for Israel to attempt to find an arrangement.

However, Israel remains committed to the position that it will condition any substantive contacts with Hamas on its adoption of the Quartet principles – recognition of Israel, cessation of violence and recognition of previous Israel-PA agreements.

Conclusion

Both Israel and Hamas are playing delicate balancing games. However, the motivation on both sides for a period of calm is strong. Whatever the broader consequences for regional and local forces, its fundamental aim is to return life in Israel’s southern regions and in the Gaza Strip to normal. Israel is taking a risk by lifting some of the military and financial pressure placed on Hamas in the past months. If Hamas abuses this opportunity, the leadership in Jerusalem will face a clear demand from the public to take firm action to provide security to its citizens, with a military option at hand.


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