Thursday, December 28, 2006

Op-Ed: Why Israel favors cease fire with Palestinians, By Mohammed Mar'i, Ramallah

Why Israel favors Cease fire with Palestinians
By Mohammed Mar'i

(Permission granted to republish with full attribution to the author. You are also encouraged to pay a fee to the author.)

(Arab American Media Services/Ramallah, Palestine) -- The cease-fire (Hudna) between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip went into effect on November 26, 2006. The Palestinian factions agreed to halt all rocket fire from the Caza Strip against Israel while Israel agreed to halt military operations and withdraw from Palestinian territories. It is the first time that Israel agrees bilaterally to stop all military operations against the Palestinians since the April Understandings between Lebanon and Israel in 1996 after the Operation Grapes of Wrath which led to Qana Massacre leaving 118 dead Lebanese civilians.

The Hudna came after months of Israeli military operations in Gaza Strip following the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit by Palestinian military wings. The Israeli "Operation Summer Rains" lift more than 400 Palestinian deaths.

Last week, according to the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) the Palestinians fired 40 rockets. The rocket attacks were carried out by members of Islamic Jihad, an organization which opposes participation in the cease-fire, in response to the killing of two Islamic Jihad militants near Jenin. The renewal of homemade rocket attacks from Gaza Strip against Israel raised the question to what extent the Hudna is in favor of Israel.

Speaking at a joint press conference with the visiting Prime Minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg, Olmert said that "for a number of weeks now I have used my authority in order to prevent a response to the continued Qassam rocket attacks, but it is clear that it is impossible to ignore this for long, so long as the Palestinians continue to shoot."

Notwithstanding the continuous Palestinian violations in the form of Qassam rocket attacks, "the cease-fire provides more calm than without it," a senior Israel political source said. Olmert is keen to stress that Israel should not be the one that announces an end to the cease-fire and that the cease-fire is also important for Israel diplomatically, the source added.

It would seem that so long as the homemade rocket attacks result in no injuries, Israel will continue its policy of relative restraint.

This is a particularly relevant point in view of the infighting that has prevailed in the Gaza Strip during the past week. Israel may choose to adhere to its commitment to the cease-fire precisely because it wants to avoid being blamed for intervening in an internal Palestinian conflict.

But Israel has other real reasons behind the recent restraint in the face of ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian factions rather than Israel's interest in securing international backing in case the government decides a large-scale operation in Gaza following a multi-casualty attack by Palestinian factions on Israeli southern residents so the (IOF) can act under massive pressure from the public, or a recognition of the fact that the (IOF) has no effective solution to stop the rockets fire.

It turns out that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is practicing restraint primarily because he wants to give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a chance to undertake the decisive and dangerous process that he kick-started last week. The process intended to remove control of the territories from Hamas hands and hand it over to Fatah by calling for early elections.

It's reasonable to assume that this is a strategic move, coordinated in advance with Abbas and his supporters, and thus, this is most likely why Olmert was so quick to approve a ceasefire a few weeks back.

Besides Israel has an estimation that renewed (IOF) operations in Gaza would cause the warring Palestinian factions to unite against Israel, and Abbas, who in such a situation, would have to postpone the disbandment of the government, refrain from setting a new date for the early elections and, thus, lose an opportunity of getting rid of, or at least weakening, the Hamas government.

Moreover Olmert doesn't want to give Abbas an excuse to get down from the high ladder he climbed on when he decided to go head-to-head with Hamas. The prime minister decided to bet on the Palestinian president and risk the potentially high price of restraint.

Another reason for Israeli restraint is an estimation that renewing army operations in the Gaza Strip will lead to a 100 percent increase in rocket attacks leaving the Israeli government no choice but to order the (IOF) to launch a large-scale operation in Gaza. The (IOF) however is split over operating in Gaza which is a high densely populated area and is not convinced that a large-scale operation would hamper the capability of Palestinian military wings to fire rockets at Israel. Although large-scale operation should give a fundamental and long-term answer to arms smuggling into Gaza, the problem is Gilad Shalit. By all judgments, Shalit is being held in the southern Gaza Strip where the (IOF) would have to operate. A large-scale operation will almost certainly stymie his release and even put his life in danger. In this case the Hudna with Palestinians is a solution despite the issue of weapons smuggling from Egypt.

It should be noted that Israel can bring about an almost complete cessation of rocket fire in Gaza if it agrees to Hamas and Islamic Jihad demands to stop assassinations of their activists and to stop its operations, not only in Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank, since most rocket fire is a response to such assassinations. Searching pretext to pressure the Palestinians, perhaps this is the reason why Israel didn't agree to implement the Hudna in the West Bank: once it assassinate an activist in the West Bank the response comes from Gaza strip

Israel didn't accept this condition fearing that not operating against Palestinian activists in the West Bank will lead to "terror" attacks within Israeli territory – attacks that will cause many casualties as was the case in the beginning of the intifada.

(Mohammed Mar'i is a Palestinian journalist based in Ramallah.)