Headlines, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

MIDEAST: Truce Beginning to Crack

Analysis by Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Dec 16 2008 (IPS) - Ten days of intensive fighting broke out between Israel and the Islamic resistance organisation Hamas last month despite a ceasefire.

Hamas spokesman Dr Ahmad Yousef. Credit: Mel Frykberg

Hamas spokesman Dr Ahmad Yousef. Credit: Mel Frykberg

Israel carried out a cross-border incursion into Gaza, sparking a cycle of tit-for-tat violence which claimed the lives of dozens of Palestinian fighters and lightly injured two Israelis.

This serious breach of a six-month ceasefire between the two raises questions whether the current truce, which formally ends in several days will be renewed, or whether Israel will embark on a major military incursion into the Gaza Strip as it has been threatening.

While a number of analysts have argued that there is a strong possibility of the truce continuing, most agree that an eventual bloody showdown between the Jewish state and Hamas is only a question of time.

Impacting the decision-making on both sides are a number of factors including upcoming elections in Israel next February, Palestinian political infighting, and military and strategic assessments.

Dr Ahmed Yousef, Hamas spokesman and the foreign advisor to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, said discussions were ongoing and that his organisation had not reached a consensus just yet on renewing the truce.

"We are discussing a number of issues including whether Israel will lift the blockade of Gaza to allow sufficient supplies of humanitarian aid in. We are also seeking the opinions of the smaller resistance groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)," he told IPS.

Dr Samir Awad, from the University of Birzeit's faculty of law department in the central West Bank, said the status quo of a lull in hostilities was only temporary, but suited Israel's interests more than a bloody incursion into the coastal territory for the time being.

"Israel's forthcoming election is one of the factors forcing Israel to be cautious at present," says Awad.

The idea of renewed escalation has been raised in the pre-election campaigns. Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni who is also chairman of the ruling Kadima party and prime ministerial candidate, wanting to appear strong, called for stronger retaliation against rocket fire emanating from Gaza.

Conversely, Labour party leader and defence minister Ehud Barak, also an election candidate and viewed as weak by many, appeared reluctant to fight on two fronts simultaneously, in Gaza and in the Israeli Knesset or parliament.

It was Barak together with chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi who persuaded the Israeli cabinet against a major incursion into Gaza last spring.

"Israel knows that ultimately there is no military solution to the conflict and that it would get dragged into a long and bloody quagmire if it did invade. An ongoing occupation would also be expensive as Israel would be obliged legally to take care of the civilian population," said Awad.

Dr Moshe Ma'oz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and Senior Fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, added that Israel has no alternative but to eventually negotiate with its enemy.

"But the Israeli government is afraid that any deal reached with Hamas would destroy its chances of reaching a two-state solution with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas whose Palestinian Authority (PA) controls the West Bank," he told IPS.

The old colonial law of divide and conquer also strengthens Israel's position as Hamas, which controls Gaza, and PA affiliate Fatah focus their weapons and animosity on each other as opposed to their common enemy and occupier Israel.

"There is a strong probability that an incursion would further solidify Palestinian public opinion on both sides of the Fatah-Hamas divide against Israel despite the current infighting," Awad told IPS.

The PA's relationship with Israel's security forces has strengthened considerably over the last year as the two co-ordinate a political and military campaign against Hamas supporters in the West Bank.

But their cooperation over the continuing economic embargo on Gaza has backfired, with the PA paying a high price politically for the rising humanitarian crisis.

Furthermore, senior PA military men and politicians have told Israel that they fear for their lives and believe Hamas might carry out assassinations against them.

Of particular concern is Jan. 9 when Abbas's presidential term expires. Abbas has said he wants to remain in power until the following year when legislative elections are scheduled.

But Hamas said it would refuse to recognise him after this date. Abbas then threatened to step down and call for immediate and simultaneous presidential and legislative elections.

"This is something that Hamas is afraid of as they are not sure of holding onto power in Gaza, and neither are they willing to give it up," said Awad.

Hamas has also stated that it would only renew the truce if the calm is extended to the West Bank. But this has been partially dismissed as political posturing, as neither the PA nor Israel are prepared to cease hostilities against Hamas supporters there.

Furthermore, Awad and his Israeli counterpart Ma'oz agree that a renewal of the temporary truce is also in the interests of Hamas.

"Hamas wants time to consolidate its power and build up its strength," says Mo'az. The resistance movement has released training videos of its men following Iranian tactical manoeuvres.

Israeli intelligence estimates that the missiles at the group's disposal have been upgraded significantly in the last few months.

At present Hamas has missiles with a 20 km range capable of only hitting Israeli towns bordering Gaza. In a few months new missiles with a range of 40 km will be in their possession, according to Israeli intelligence.

Ultimately the organisation wants missiles with a 70 km range which would be able to target central Israeli towns and cities such as Jerusalem.

"It is only a matter of time before the two sides will clash again," said Mo'az.

In the interim Israeli security officials are preparing for a number of scenarios as not much hope is held out for the current Egyptian mediated negotiations between the Palestinian factions being held in Cairo.

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