Written by Shlomo Brom
May 15, 2008
INSS Insight No. 55
by Shlomo Brom
Negotiations toward a ceasefire in Gaza, mediated by Egypt and other channels, have been ongoing for some time. Now, however, Egypt's efforts to convince Hamas and the other armed groups in Gaza to agree to a ceasefire while relinquishing some of their demands have borne fruit. The Egyptian minister of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, came to Israel to urge the government to accept Egypt's proposal for a six month ceasefire. Israel must decide whether such a ceasefire would harm Israel's broader interests, and whether its conditions resolve Israel's principal hesitations.
The main terms of the ceasefire that must be agreed upon are:
Hamas is interested in a comprehensive ceasefire, binding on the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip, because the organization wants to halt Israeli pressure on its West Bank units. Therefore, from its vantage, the ceasefire must include the cessation of arrests and other actions against Hamas operatives in the West Bank. For Israel this is a red line, because a cessation of Israel's activity in the West Bank would allow the rebuilding of a terror infrastructure that could be directed at Israel at Hamas' convenience. The proximity of the West Bank to key areas in Israel prohibits any Israeli flexibility in this regard. The building of a Hamas infrastructure for manufacturing rockets in the West Bank, for example, would create an intolerable reality for Israel. Cessation of Israeli activity would also allow Hamas to build an organizational and military infrastructure that could eventually overcome Abu Mazen's forces and take control of the West Bank, as it did in the Gaza Strip.
Consequently, the Egyptians persuaded Hamas and the other organizations to accept a compromise whereby in the first stage the ceasefire would apply only to the Gaza Strip, along with an Egyptian commitment to try to convince Israel to expand the ceasefire to the West Bank in the next stage. This compromise is problematic because Israel opposes any hint that it might consider expanding the ceasefire to the West Bank. Also, from the statements by spokespersons of the smaller organizations, such as Islamic Jihad, one gleans that despite their seeming acceptance of the Egyptian proposal, they would be hard pressed to exercise restraint if their activists in the West Bank were targeted.
Since Israel's disengagement from Gaza and the Palestinian elections, Hamas has almost consistently expressed its willingness to maintain a mutual ceasefire with Israel; a ceasefire would help it reap the fruits of its success in the Palestinian political arena and consolidate its rule. However, Hamas has had less willingness to enter into a conflict with the other armed groups and impose a ceasefire upon them, including by force. On the other hand, Israel has no reason to agree to a ceasefire so long as Hamas ignores its responsibility as Gaza’s governing entity and other organizations continue to fire rockets at Israeli towns. Such a ceasefire would in any case quickly collapse in the wake of Israeli responses to the rocket fire.
Egypt therefore conducted negotiations with the smaller groups (12 organizations) as well and persuaded them to accept the proposal. Yet this solution too is somewhat problematic. First, it reflects Hamas' continued unwillingness – notwithstanding its capacity as Gaza’s governing body – to enforce the understandings it commits to, leaving compliance up to the goodwill of the smaller groups and Egypt's persuasive ability. Second, amid the Gaza reality in which even clans possess armed militias and any group carrying arms can organize under a particular banner, it is likely that additional groups, beyond the 12 organizations, will consider themselves unbound by the ceasefire.
Hamas’s interest in the ceasefire stems from its drive to strengthen its political power and military capabilities. As far as it is concerned, there is not much justification for a ceasefire if only the military pressure on Gaza is suspended. Therefore, for Hamas the ceasefire is conditional on the lifting of the siege of the Gaza Strip, i.e., opening the crossings to Egypt and Israel. Even if Israel accepts that the total closure of crossings to Gaza cannot continue over time and permits the transfer of basic goods into Gaza, Israel is not interested in a sweeping cancellation of anti-Hamas sanctions; this would strengthen Hamas and weaken Abu Mazen. Thus agreement on a ceasefire requires understandings as to how much the pressure on Gaza is relaxed. For example, would the Rafah border crossing be opened based on the agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, whereby the crossing is operated by the PA, i.e., Abu Mazen's forces, under European supervision and with television surveillance by Israel? Or would its opening meet Hamas' demands, whereby it would be jointly operated by Hamas and the PA, under European supervision and with no Israeli remote surveillance?
One of Israel’s main arguments is that a ceasefire would be exploited by Hamas for building up its military capability in Gaza, to be used against Israel whenever convenient for the organization. The key question here is the smuggling of arms into Gaza. It is difficult to imagine that Hamas would cease smuggling within the framework of a ceasefire so long as Israel is free to build up its military capabilities directed against the organization. Thus the ball is in Egypt’s court. Assuming that total prevention of smuggling is not possible, the question is to what extent is Egypt prepared to demonstrate to Israel that it is indeed working effectively to minimize smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
Many other open questions remain. If there is agreement over Israel’s principal demands, Israel would presumably give positive consideration to a ceasefire. Such a ceasefire would on the one hand respond to the essential need for enabling Israeli residents of the western Negev to conduct a normal lifestyle and avoid having Israel drawn once again into Gaza; on the other hand, it would have only a limited negative impact on Israel’s Palestinian partners in negotiations over a permanent accord or on Israel’s broader interests. But any such ceasefire is inherently short-lived and embodies the seeds of its own dissolution, even if the understandings are not time-limited (six months in the case of the Egyptian proposal); this is mainly due to the tension between a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the conflict in the West Bank Therefore a ceasefire’s benefit, like any inherent long term damage, is perforce limited. It could serve as leverage for encouraging stability and arrangements that are more long term, but only if the relative calm and indirect dialogue that has already begun is exploited for building more long term processes, both in the Palestinian arena – between Hamas and Fatah – and between Israel and Hamas.
There is also the question of linkage between understandings over a ceasefire and the release of Gilad Shalit. Negotiations over a ceasefire can be used to pressure Hamas into greater flexibility in its demands; however it cannot be assumed that due to Hamas’s strong interest in a ceasefire, it will yield to Israeli demands on this matter. It is quite possible that at the end of the day Israel will have to pay a high price for Shalit's release, including the release of prisoners defined by Israel as having “blood on their hands.”
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs.