Sunday, February 22, 2009

Israel's Gaza Gamble May Blow Up in Everyone's Face - Tony Karon

The National, February 21, 2009 - Hamas took a calculated gamble last November when it escalated its rocket attacks on southern Israel, hoping that the resulting crisis would result in ceasefire terms that finally lifted the crippling economic siege of Gaza. The truce that Egypt believed it had brokered between the two sides last week would have realized that goal, albeit at terrible human cost to Gazans. After weeks of shuttling back and forth to Cairo, Hamas and Israel had agreed to a halt in hostilities – a source of considerable relief to the international community, which was ready to get on with the business of rebuilding Gaza, reconciling the Palestinian factions and looking for new pathways out of the impasse that has frozen the peace process for the past eight years.

Then, at the 11th hour, the Israelis backed out. There could be no Gaza truce, they said, until Hamas agreed to release Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held prisoner in Gaza since the summer of 2006. President Hosni Mubarak was livid: Shalit’s release was being negotiated by the two sides on a parallel track, and it was expected to come soon after a ceasefire agreement, in exchange for Israel freeing a large number of Palestinian prisoners.

The Israeli retreat is an ill-advised gamble, using the leverage of their chokehold on Gaza to press for the release of a captive whose continued detention is a symbol of humiliation in Israel. But it may be something even more alarming than a reckless roll of the dice: it could be a sign of just how dangerous Israel’s growing domestic political incoherence could become.

Decisions over war and peace remain in the hands of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert until he leaves office in anticipation of a corruption indictment. But it is not only the pall of scandal that clouds Mr Olmert’s legacy: he is viewed in Israel as the architect of two failed military campaigns. Israel did not achieve its objectives either in its invasion of Lebanon in 2006 or in its recent 22-day blasting of Gaza. With rocket and mortar fire from Gaza continuing even now, he has nothing to show for a military campaign that caused Israel considerable diplomatic damage.

Bringing home Cpl Shalit would be a partial redemption in Israeli eyes of a failed prime minister. But Mr Olmert is savvy enough to know that is not going to happen: his government hasn’t even decided just who they’re willing to release to win the soldier’s freedom. And Hamas is in no hurry to indulge Israel’s belated linkage of Cpl Shalit with the ceasefire issue. So Mr Olmert essentially backed out of a truce he wasn’t sure his successors wanted....

But that may be the least of it. Hamas will use the fact that it was ready to meet Israel’s and Egypt’s terms before Israel sabotaged a truce to rally support throughout the region and beyond, turning up the pressure not just on Israel, but also on Egypt – particularly in respect of getting the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza reopened. [See also: Egypt to Open Gaza Border for Three Days - The Kuwait Times, February 22, 2009.]

But if the Gaza crossings remain closed to all but a trickle of humanitarian aid, Hamas could calculate that the arithmetic of crisis breaks in its favour, and again escalate rocket fire out of Gaza. After all, if the Israelis responded with another military campaign jeopardising the lives of Gaza’s civilians, that will only increase the pressure on Israel and its allies and partners....

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst and journalist who blogs at Rootless Cosmopolitan.

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