Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gaza Truce Held Hostage

Al Ahram Weekly, February 19-25, 2009 - Last week Osama Salman, a teacher, signed a contract to build an extra storey to his house in the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza. Friends and colleagues were dumbstruck -- Gaza ran out of building materials more than 18 months ago -- but Salman was confident that once the truce came into effect border crossings with Israel would reopen. Now he realises his signing was a precipitous action.

"Statements by Hamas and Egyptian officials made me think a truce was round the corner. I went off and signed a deal with the contractor. Now that the prospects for a truce have dwindled I realise I acted foolishly," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Osama was not alone. There are no inhabitants of Gaza whose domestic and business interests are not connected to the lifting of the blockade and the opening of the borders. Yet outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is insisting that Israel secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit first. On Wednesday, after a Security Cabinet meeting, Olmert repeated his condition that Shalit must be freed: "We will negotiate his release first and only then will we be willing to discuss things like the Gaza crossings and rebuilding" the Gaza Strip.

Ayman Taha, in Cairo to attend the truce talks, told the Weekly that the Hamas delegation, of which he is a member, felt it had been misled. Egyptian officials had told them that Israel had agreed to an 18-month truce under which Israel and the Palestinian factions would halt all military operations in addition to Israel reopening its border crossings into Gaza, and the Rafah border to Egypt being reopened in coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA) security. He added that Hamas representatives had been told by an Egyptian intermediary that a deal in which Israel would release 1,400 Palestinian detainees in exchange for Shalit would follow once the truce had been signed. Later the delegation was told by head of Egyptian General Intelligence Omar Suleiman that Israel had changed its mind and was now insisting on the exchange deal first and finalising any truce afterwards.

"They want to get Shalit back and then say that they aren't interested in a truce," says Taha. "Both Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni have rejected the idea of a truce with Hamas."

He warns that Israel is making a grave mistake if it thinks Hamas will agree to a prisoner exchange before the blockade is lifted, suggesting that Israel will back down when it realises that Hamas "means what it says when it refuses any linkage between the truce and Shalit".

Israeli commentators Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel confirm Taha's reading of developments. Both report that Amos Gilad, head of the Israeli Defence Ministry's diplomatic-security bureau, had officially notified the Egyptian government of Israel's approval of the truce. In an article appearing in Haaretz last week they argued that the shift in Israel's position was a result of the collapse in support of the Labour Party whose leader, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, has been one of the most enthusiastic advocates of a truce.

The closing window of opportunity for a truce has cast a heavy shadow over efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah. Palestinian commentator Maamoun Amer says Hamas leaders feel that in the absence of a truce leading to the lifting of the blockade any pressure on Hamas would only serve to inhibit dialogue with Fatah.

"Hamas is eager to engage in a national dialogue to end the rift but prefers to reach an agreement with Fatah after the blockade is lifted. Otherwise, the blockade could be used to extort concessions," Amer told the Weekly. He added that as positive as the climate was no practical steps had been taken to create a climate conducive to dialogue, especially on the subject of political detainees, a major source of tension. Hamas leaders in the West Bank recently announced that Salam Fayyad government's security forces were continuing to round up Hamas activists there even during the Hamas- Fatah meetings in Cairo.

A Hamas source told the Weekly that as determined as the movement is to engage in talks after a truce agreement is concluded it will not allow this to obstruct opportunities for dialogue. He added that Egypt's latest proposals on national dialogue -- that it could begin with an inaugural session attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Chief of the Hamas Political Bureau Khaled Mashaal -- had taken Hamas's sensitivities into account. In the past Hamas has insisted that in any opening session Abbas would have to attend as head of Fatah and not as Palestinian president.

But it appears that not only Hamas, but Egypt too was also misled by the Israelis. President Mubarak has ruled out any linkage between a truce and completion of the prisoner swap. "The Shalit file is independent and cannot be linked in anyway with efforts to secure a truce," said Mubarak.

Six national dialogue subcommittees, charged with the creation of a national conciliation government, drawing up the guidelines for revamping the Palestinian security agencies on an occupational not factional basis, deliberating ways to restructure and reactivate the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and on the procedures of legislative and presidential elections, are expected to convene on 28 February. Representatives from Egypt, the Arab League and independent Palestinian figures will attend, tasked with helping resolve problems as they arise....

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