Ceasefire seen as strengthening Hamas

By Kim Bullimore
In Ramallah, Occupied West Bank

Thirty extra truckloads of food and commercial goods were allowed into the besieged Gaza Strip on June 22, as Israel temporarily opened the Kerem Shalom crossing. Since April, Israel had been permitting only 60 truckloads of supplies per day to enter the region via the nearby Sufa crossing. The extra supplies came as part of a tenuous cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, which went into effect on June 19.
The ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, calls for all hostilities and military activities to halt for six months. According to the agreement, once there had been a cessation of hostilities for three days, Israel would begin relaxing slightly its illegal siege of Gaza, allowing a 30% increase in humanitarian supplies, such as food and oil, into the region. The cease-fire began one year after Hamas seized complete control of the Gaza Strip after an 18-month campaign by the US, Israel and the rival Palestinian Fatah party to topple it from the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) government and eight months after Israel imposed a crippling total siege.

In January 2006, Hamas candidates won a majority of seats in elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), ending Fatah’s political control of the Palestinian Authority since its inception in 1996. In response, Israel, the US and the European Union imposed an economic and financial embargo on the PA in an attempt to undermine the democratic choice of the Palestinian people. The blockade pushed more than 85% of Palestinian households below the poverty line.

As the blockade devastated the Palestinian economy, the US channelled millions of dollars through to Fatah leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Most of the funds were earmarked to politically bolster Abbas, but some were for the training of hundreds of presidential guards to ensure that Fatah remained in control of the PA security forces. In the months after the PLC elections, Israel arrested at least 33 members of the PLC, the majority of whom were elected on Hamas’ Change and Reform ticket.

In October 2006, fighting erupted between armed Hamas and Fatah militants. But under public pressure from the Palestinian street and jailed Palestinian resistance leaders to end these armed clashes, the two groups agreed in February 2007 to form a “national unity” government. This government, however, was short lived, as the US and Israeli rulers continued to push Fatah to carry out a “hard coup” against Hamas. Over a period of one year, fighting between Hamas and Fatah killed more than 450 Palestinians and wounded 1800.

Throughout May 2007, a Gaza-based Fatah warlord, Mohammed Dahlan, used the PA Preventive Security Service to provoke clashes with Hamas. In June 2007, Hamas-led forces in Gaza quickly overran Dahlan’s CIA-trained thugs, seizing control of the coastal strip. In retailiation, Abbas declared a state of emergency, dismissed the Hamas-led national unity government and installed a PA cabinet headed by Palestinian-American Salaam Fayaad, whose Third Way party held only two seats in the 132-seat PLC.

Humanitarian crisis

On September 19, three months after Hamas took full control of Gaza, Israel declared the enclave an “enemy entity”. This was an attempt to circumvent international law governing the administration of an occupied territory, which makes it illegal for an occupying power to impose collective punishment against a civilian population. Five weeks later, on October 26, Israel placed the Gaza Strip under total siege, implementing phase one of its plan to punish the residents for supporting Hamas’ successful smashing of the US-backed Dahlan coup plot.

The Israeli siege has produced a deepening humanitarian crisis. More than 85% of Gazans are now reliant on food aid from international humanitarian organisations, and more than 70% of the 1.5 million residents are unemployed due to the closure of nearly 4000 factories. In addition, the fishing industry in Gaza has ground almost to a halt, with more than 3000 fishers being forced to stop work due to a lack of fuel and restrictions on fishing imposed by the Israeli military.

In January, only one-quarter of Gaza’s water pumps were operational due to lack of fuel, leaving at least 600,000 residents without clean drinking water. At least 80% of Gazans were left in darkness when fuel supplies ran out and electricity was rationed due to Israeli cuts to electricity supplies. Also in January, Hamas and other members of the Palestinian resistance broke the siege temporarily by blowing up a section of the border wall between Rafah in Gaza and Egypt. Within hours of the wall coming down, hundreds of thousands of Gazans had flooded into Egyptian territory in order to buy desperately needed supplies.

Israel has also conducted repeated large-scale military attacks on Gaza. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, these attacks killed at least 470 Gazans between January and May, including 119 in March alone. In response to the attacks and the siege, the Palestinian resistance continued to fire Qassam rockets into southern Israel. The rockets, derisively referred to as “flying iron” by the Israeli military because they have no guidance system and rarely hit their intended target, have killed 22 Israeli civilians since they first started being fired by the Palestinian resistance in 2001. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, since September 2000, Israeli military attacks in the West Bank and Gaza have killed at least 4718 Palestinians.

‘We will not be broken’

Hamas leader and political bureau chief Khaled Mesha’al told Reuters news agency on June 18 that the ceasefire agreement with the Israeli military reflected Hamas’ “strong position’’. He said, “We are a people with a cause and we will not be broken by aggression or invasion”. In an interview with Reuters the previous day, Mesha’al confirmed that the ceasefire agreement did not include the release of Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier captured two years earlier during an attack on an Israeli military base near Gaza. According to Mesha’al, Schalit’s release is “linked to an exchange deal [for prisoners] … whereas the truce involves a bilateral ceasefire, lifting of the blockade and opening the crossings”.

According to Ahmed Yousef, a political adviser to the Hamas-led PA foreign ministry in Gaza, and Ismail Haniyeh, the PLC-selected Hamas prime minister, all Palestinian factions have agreed to the ceasefire. In an article published on the Palestine Chronicle website, Yousef said the ceasefire has “national consensus”. On June 19, both the Izza Din al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ armed wing) and Islamic Jihad confirmed their support for the ceasefire. Even as it took effect, however, Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, continued to threaten a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip. On June 18, Olmert told Telev Aviv’s Haaretz newspaper that the ceasefire may be short lived and that Israel was ready to carry out military attacks if it collapsed.

Despite the agreement in Gaza, Israel has refused to put any limits on its military attacks in the occupied West Bank. According to the June 19 Haaretz, Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff General Gabi Ashkenazi told the Israeli Knesset (parliament) that the IDF would continue its military operations in the West Bank. Haaretz also reported that deputy Israeli PM Haim Ramon had said he opposed the ceasefire as it amounted to “recognition of Hamas and a very serious blow to the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, who will negotiate to establish a joint government with Hamas”.

Israel’s agreement to a ceasefire that has long been offered to it by Hamas comes at a time when public opinion polls reveal that a majority of Jewish Israeli citizens believe that Israel’s policy in the Gaza Strip is not achieving its goals. According to a poll commissioned by two Israeli human rights groups, Gisha-Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, 83% of Israelis surveyed believed that the siege of Gaza has strengthened Hamas, while 68% believed that the siege had resulted in a worsening of Israel’s security situation.

According to the survey, 53% believed that Israel’s objectives in carrying out the siege were not security related but political — either to force Gazan residents to change the Hamas regime (26%) or to influence Hamas directly and cause it to change its policies (27%). The survey also found that 78% of Israelis believed that the siege will not end Palestinian support for Hamas, while 60% believed that the worsening of conditions in Gaza is more likely to cause more support for Islamic extremism. In addition, 67% of those surveyed believed that the siege of Gaza was diminishing Israel’s standing internationally, while 24% thought the siege policy was making Israel look “much worse”. According to Gisha, 44% of the survey respondents identified themselves as right wing, 20% as centrist and 21% as left or moderate left.

‘Campaign has backfired’

Dahlia Scheindlin, the independent pollster who conducted the survey, noted that it revealed “a striking agreement across political and ideological lines that the closure is likely to drive people towards extremism, and there is a strong consensus that the closure primarily affects civilians but is completely ineffective at causing them to change the Hamas regime”. Similarly, in the lead-up to the ceasefire, the June 15 Jerusalem Post noted that the “US-led campaign over the past 12 months to undermine the Hamas government has clearly backfired, earning the Islamist movement additional sympathy among the Palestinians”.

According to the Post, since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip it has been able to enforce a much tighter public security regime then had previously existed under the Fatah-controlled PA Preventive Security Force, and there has been a 95% drop in the crime rate. Hamas has also brought an end to the kidnapping of foreign nationals working in Gaza (between 2003 and 2007, up to 25 foreign nationals had been abducted, the majority later released).

Olmert has continued to maintain the fiction that his government has not recognised Hamas as a significant political player, claiming that the ceasefire was negotiated with Egypt, not Hamas. But Ramon is right: the ceasefire does amount to a recognition of Hamas. Previously the US and Israeli governments had said they would not deal with Hamas unless it recognised the right of the Zionist state to exist. In negotiating the ceasefire, even with Cairo as an intermediary, Israel has undermined its own demands, putting Hamas in a much stronger position than it was previously, justifying its strategy in relation to the Palestinian liberation struggle.

Hamas’ recognition by Israel, albeit de facto, is also a serious blow to Abbas and Fatah. Not only does the ceasefire give Hamas, rather than Abbas, control, at least for the moment, of the Rafah border crossings, but it also puts Hamas in a much stronger position in entering talks for a possible new unity government announced by Abbas in early June, on the anniversary of the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

For the past 12 months, Abbas had refused to conduct talks or negotiations with Hamas, despite calls from across Palestinian society for national unity. This refusal was in part a result of intensive pressure from the US and Israeli rulers, who threatened to withdraw support from him if he reconciled with Hamas. Abbas’s change of tack follows his failure to gain much from Israel in the past year in their talks, in which he sought an end to the expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements, the building of the apartheid wall and military attacks and arrests in the West Bank.

Hamas will now be in a much stronger position, not only among the Palestinian “street” but also in relation to any negotiations with Fatah, as well as any possible new presidential or parliamentary elections that may be scheduled.