Middle East Peace Report
Americans For Peace Now (Special Report)
October 29, 2007 - 7:05pm

LESS POWER: Israel began cutting fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip on Sunday, in line with its recent decision intended to put pressure on Gaza's leaders in response to months of Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. Gaza residents have reportedly begun to form lines at gasoline stations, stocking up for the shortage.


This decision is based on the work of a committee headed by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, who claimed that Israel has "no choice but to take these measures." Israel, he argued, "cannot stand idly and continue to provide electricity and fuel as usual when they are attacking us with rockets day after day. In the long term, I believe that this measure will lead to a reduction in the firing against Israel." Commentators in Israel suggested that if the power outages do not help, in the end there will be no choice but to carry out a large-scale, prolonged military operation in order to stop the Kassam rocket fire.


Israel's most prominent editorialist is not buying this logic. Nahum Barnea writes in Monday's Yedioth Ahronoth that this decision embodies "a rare combination of errors.  Firstly, it punishes not the Kassam rocket cells but the Gazan population, and pushes [the latter] into the arms of Hamas and terrorism.  Secondly, it is opposed to all norms of morals and international law.  Instead of severing Israel from the occupation, at least as far as Gaza is concerned, it exacerbates Israel's image as a cruel occupier.  Thirdly, it does not conform to the effort to reestablish a dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and with the moderate Arab regimes.  The foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia will not be able to sit quietly in Annapolis while [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak is plunging Gaza into darkness, not to mention Abu Mazen."


Barnea believes that the decision to cut off electricity to Gaza, an issue now being reviewed by Israel's High Court of Justice, is "good news for Hamas.  It provides it voluntarily with propaganda ammunition and a good excuse for failing to administer the Gaza Strip.  Every shortage that will be revealed from now in the kingdom of Hamas, in fuel, basic foodstuffs or humanitarian goods, will fall on Israel's head.  Indeed, Hamas did not wait for Barak: Yesterday, before the ink had dried on the decision, Hamas complained that Israel had halted the fuel supply.  Whether it had halted or did not halt it is not important.  What matters is that the impression of a moral balance has been created: We are hit by Kassam rockets.  They are fuel starved.  We and Hamas are in the same boat."


"Why is Barak doing this nonsensical act?" asks Barnea.  "First of all, because in the absence of a solution to the Kassam rocket problem, even a media spin can serve as a solution, just so long as no one knows that the defense minister's mind is empty of ideas.  Secondly, because it looks wonderful in the Internet comments: Every eight-year old who wants to express himself voices his enthusiastic support.  Finally, writes the child, we have a defense minister with balls.  But why complain about Barak.  We have a prime minister who is willing to accept this folly silently, just to keep from rocking the boat.  We have a foreign minister who is supposed to warn of the diplomatic damage, but she too is silent.  We have a president who is supposed to represent the moral aspect of our life, but he too is silent. 


Barnea is not alone in his criticism. IDF Major General (retired) Shlomo Gazit writes in Ma'ariv that "there is no chance that this pressure will achieve its goal—halting the Kassam rocket fire at Israeli territory.  The residents of the Gaza Strip will not like the power cutback, but they will cast the full blame on Israel, who is flipping the switch.  They will not apply pressure to [Hamas leader] Ismail Haniya and the leaders of the organizations.  On the contrary, this will only increase their desire for revenge.  The power cutoff constitutes an absolute collective punishment.  This is an initiated sanction aimed only against innocent civilians, and as [Israeli High Court] justice Binyamin Halevy once said [in a ruling identifying which military orders soldiers must refuse to carry out], it will be a 'patently illegal act, marked by a black flag!'" Writing in Ha'aretz, Uzi Benziman seems to agree: "Experience teaches that subjecting the Palestinians to collective punishment - roadblocks, curfews or economic pressure - has not brought the desired result. Just the opposite: it increases the terror organizations' motivation to strike at Israel, and increases the number of potential suicide bombers. In addition, the use of collective punishment damages Israel's image and efforts to gain international understanding for its position in the conflict with the Palestinians. Common sense would thus suggest avoiding this method. To put it simply, in terms of costs versus benefits - the idea of harassing Gazans to the point of depriving them of fuel and electricity deserves to be shelved in light of the price Israel will have to pay for implementing this plan."


Journalist Ariella Ringel-Hoffman writes in Friday's Yedioth Ahronoth that under normal circumstances it would be legitimate for Israel to stop supplying "to what it calls a hostile entity, electricity, water, fuel and food. Enemy countries don't supply this." But she notes that Israel and Gaza do not have such a normal relationship. Israel cannot cut supplies to Gaza, she writes, "as long as it stubbornly and firmly maintains the siege on the Gaza Strip, preventing a seaport from being built, disrupting any attempt to rebuild the airport, continuing to build high walls along the border with Israel and sabotaging any effort to open the Gaza Strip to free land movement. The alternative that Israel poses to what it calls the hostile entity, to sit quietly and starve and also to sit in the dark as long as the Kassam rocket fire continues, is not only not humanitarian (which is enough in itself), it is also ineffective (for those who make decisions based on cost effectiveness)."  (Ha'aretz, 10/28/07; Ma'ariv, 10/26 & 10/29/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 10/26 & 10/29/07


LESS POWER, PART II: Israel's largest non-partisan grassroots organization called on Defense Minister Ehud Barak to reverse the decision to cut electricity supplies to Gaza. In a letter to the defense minister, Peace Now Secretary-General Yariv Oppenheimer wrote that "like all fellow Israelis we too are deeply disturbed to see the rise of Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip and the continual Kassam fire into Israel. There is no question that the State of Israel has to stand to its defense and act against those who wish to harm the country through means of terror and missile fire.


"Despite this," continues Oppenheimer, "we feel that the cutting of electricity supplies to the residents of Gaza is an immoral act, and is in contrast to all the values that the State of Israel holds sacred as a democratic country. In addition this collective punishment is likely to cause distress to thousands of innocent civilians, and will only play into the hands of Hamas, increasing their support in Gaza and the world as a whole.  Apart from the difficult moral dilemma this act causes, cutting the supplies to the Gaza Strip will only increase the extremist elements within the Gaza Strip and hatred towards Israel. Hamas and the terror groups will enjoy further renewed support from the Palestinian population, and the image of Israel will receive a further blow throughout the world."


"At the end of the day," Oppenheimer predicts, "this decision will never bring an end to the Kassam fire and the terror attempts, but will only increase the bitterness and suffering within Gaza, strengthening the status of the extremists and damage Israel's world standing. For the sake of the residents of Sedrot, and of all Israeli citizens, we request that you cancel this erroneous decision and instead of cutting electric supplies, work towards an open and consistent dialogue with the various elements within the Gaza strip in order to bring about a ceasefire and rehabilitation of Gaza." (Peace Now, 10/27/07)


MIXED MESSAGES: At the same time that Israel's defense establishment is stepping up sanction against Gaza, Israel is seeking to ensure that the banking system there does not collapse. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fishcer has asked two private Israeli banks, Bank Hapoalim and Bank Discount, to defer their plans to end their contacts with banks in Gaza by six weeks.


Since the Israeli Shekel is the major currency in use in Gaza, the potential bank embargo would create a substantial cash-flow crisis in the Gazan economy. Following the private banks announcements earlier this fall that they plan to end their business operations in Gaza, the Prime Minister's Office and the Bank of Israel have begun looking into alternative solutions. Israel is reportedly considering using the government-owned Postal Bank, using foreign banks which have local branches in the Palestinian Authority, and converting the Shekel into Egyptian pound and possibly transferring funds through Egyptian banks. (Globes, 10/25/07; Ynet, 10/24/07; Ha'aretz, 10/29/07)


OPERATION DOCTOR: Israel's most prominent novelist, Amos Oz, praised Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this weekend for publicly advocating a two-state solution to the conflict, but also voiced concern that Olmert's government may not be able to deliver on a negotiated two-state solution. Akiva Eldar writes in Ha'aretz that "Oz believes Israel's government is acting like a doctor who refuses to carry out a critical operation, even though the patient is willing."


"Despite the fact that the public is not dancing in the streets, it is ready for a solution based on the Clinton plan, the Taba Accords and the Geneva Initiative," Oz said, adding that it would be a "catastrophe" to squander the opportunity offered by the Annapolis conference and the divide between Fatah and Hamas.


How should Israel proceed? Oz believes that Israel should agree to a cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. After all, Israel has observed cease-fires and truces with numerous Arab states. Oz said that even though Hamas may not want peace negotiations with Israel, a cease-fire would make it easier for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to advance the negotiations and reach an agreement with Israel.


Cabinet Minister Ami Ayalon similarly called on Olmert to end Israel's boycott of Hamas. The organization should send representatives to participate in the Annapolis peace conference on the condition that Hamas agrees to accept the Palestinian Authority's stance at the summit suggested Ayalon. "I say we need to invite Hamas to Annapolis, if from the beginning, they are prepared to receive any joint document signed by Abu Mazen and Ehud Olmert," Ayalon told Israel's Army Radio on Wednesday. "A call like this from Israel could bring the beginning of Hamas' disintegration because of the internal conflict which will occur," he added.


Hamas is reportedly pushing for talks with Israel. Palestinian President Abbas said on Thursday that Hamas officials were holding meetings with Israel to end the blockade of Gaza and ease access for goods and people. Israel denied that claim. But Ma'ariv's Amir Rappaport reported on Friday that these contacts represented an effort by Hamas, initiated by its most senior leaders, to hold secret negotiations.


Rappaport reports that "Hamas's preliminary proposal was that the organization will stop firing the rockets completely and prevent the other terrorist organizations from firing at Israel. Hamas also promised to come to an agreement for a calm with Israel. In exchange, Hamas asked that the crossing points be opened, merchandise allowed in, and the continued supply of fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip. Hamas also asked the Israeli mediators to organize a meeting between their representatives and Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai."(Ha'aretz, 10/24, 10/25 & 10/28/07; Ma'ariv, 10/26/07)


BARAK UNDER PRESSURE: A number of Labor Party leaders, headed by Ephraim Sneh, Amir Peretz, and Ami Ayalon, called a meeting of the faction Monday to demand that party leader Ehud Barak support the talks taking place between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.


There has been significant tension within the party over Barak's lukewarm approach to the current peace initiative and his statement that Israel would not be able to cede any territory for five years, until it acquires a complex missile defense system. Ayalon – no security lightweight, he served as commander of the Israeli navy and head of the General Security Service before entering politics – characterized Barak's missile-defense claim as "baseless."


At the meeting, prominent Labor Party Knesset Members reportedly pushed for a broader and more substantive international conference at Annapolis. Former Mossad chief Danny Yatom urged that the Syrians be invited to Annapolis. Ophir Pines suggested that the role of the Labor Party is to "explain to Olmert that it would be a mistake to hold a conference that doesn't deal with the core issues. There is no such scenario. A conference without the core issues is a dangerous situation that could backfire." Ayalon said that it is "vital that the Annapolis conference succeed, and the Labor Party must contribute to that." He called on the party to formulate and publicize its stance regarding all of the central issues of the conflict, such as Jerusalem, refugees and borders. By the end of the three and a half hour meeting, Barak reportedly announced the appointment of former Energy Minister Moshe Shahal to head the party's policy staff.


Frustration with Barak extends beyond the ranks of his party. Ha'aretz columnist Yoel Marcus writes that "Olmert insiders suspect that Barak is out to delegitimize his leadership." The prime minister's supporters note Barak's "thundering silence when the subject of the Annapolis summit came up, and finally, his comments that the summit was a 'soufflé' and the partners to it are not partners. The trouble with Barak, they fume in the Olmert camp, is that he doesn't offer any alternative. In the end, those who refuse to sit down with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will have to sit down with Hamas politburo leader Khaled Meshal… At a government meeting a few weeks ago, Olmert's buddies say, Barak spoke in general about the 'need to act wisely,' and 'look before you leap.' But on the subject of alternatives, his mouth stayed zipped shut. They believe this is a calculated move: He is deliberately sitting on the fence."


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