Yossi Alpher
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
March 24, 2008 - 5:53pm

The past two weeks witnessed a familiar pattern of events. Israel retaliated against Palestinian terrorists firing rockets from Gaza at Israeli civilians. This produced an escalation, in the course of which the city of Ashkelon with its 100,000 inhabitants was brought into the circle of hostile rocket fire. Israel responded with a modest ground and air operation that took a heavy toll in Palestinian lives, mainly Hamas combatants. Egypt intervened with a proposal for a tahdiya, or pause in the fighting. Israel and Hamas, both wary of the wages of further escalation, appeared to signal their agreement.

PM Olmert denied that Israel had agreed to a pause; his cabinet had just issued a directive to the IDF to eliminate all rocket-firing capability from Gaza--an impossible task. Defense Minister Ehud Barak continued to talk of preparations for a massive attack on the Strip. But Olmert stated that Israel would not attack targets in Gaza if no attacks on Israel were launched from there--an exercise in doublespeak that, to most observers, signaled acceptance of the tahdiya proposal. Hamas, meanwhile, conditioned its acceptance on Israel refraining from attacking targets in the West Bank. The Egyptians were reportedly busy trying to turn the pause into a full-fledged and extended ceasefire or hudna. They sought to expand their mediation to include the long-standing Israel-Hamas prisoner-exchange talks as well as new arrangements for the Gaza passages that would integrate the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority leadership, at least symbolically, in their management.

From the Palestinian side, the ceasefire was never complete. With the exception of a few days, a trickle of rockets continued to be fired at Israel, including one that landed in Ashkelon shortly after Olmert visited the city. Israel avoided responding against targets in Gaza despite its assessment that Hamas is capable, if it so desires, of ceasing all attacks, without exception. Instead, Israel intercepted and killed four known Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists in Bethlehem in the West Bank. PIJ responded with rocket fire from Gaza that was tolerated by Hamas, and Israel in turn attacked PIJ targets there from the air. By the by, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem murdered eight young Jewish seminary students and both Hamas and Hizballah celebrated the event.

One can, of course, make the case that the attack on PIJ targets in the West Bank was not urgent and constituted a deliberate provocation on Israel's part, engineered by Barak to scuttle the Gaza pause. One can also argue that it would be wise for Israel to scale down its security activity, leave "retired" terrorists alone and remove unnecessary checkpoints in the West Bank as a step toward empowering the PA there led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. On the other hand, Israel has an obligation to eliminate known terrorists in an area where it has never in any way recognized a ceasefire.

As of the time of writing, renewed conflict in and around Gaza still only involved a trickle of Qassams, and some version of the tahdiya could yet be restored. Insofar as a major IDF assault on Gaza is an extremely risky and potentially costly operation, it certainly seems advisable to let Egypt try to develop a series of understandings between Israel and Hamas that could stabilize life in and around the Strip, particularly if the outcome does not weaken the PA in the West Bank.

But here lies the catch. The moment Hamas insists that a tahdiya extend to the West Bank as well, Israel has every reason to reject this demand, and the West Bank-based PA and neighboring Jordan have every reason to be suspicious. Yes, there are excesses in Israel's security profile in the West Bank: for one, the ongoing presence of settlements and outposts beyond the security fence is undoubtedly a major security-related problem that the Olmert government has not done nearly enough to alleviate. But the Hamas ceasefire demand regarding the West Bank must be understood as a blatant attempt to weaken Fateh, Israel's peace negotiating partner, and even to replace it as ruler of the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip.

Given the PA's difficulty in combating West Bank terrorists--it is only beginning to deal successfully with criminal (not terrorist) activity in some key areas--Israeli compliance with Hamas' demand to cease all efforts to intercept terrorists in the West Bank would have a double negative effect. In the short run, it would portray Hamas as the stronger and more effective representative of Palestinian needs and aspirations, thereby weakening Fateh and the PA. And in the long run, by allowing Hamas to operate freely in the West Bank, it would open the door to a Hamas takeover there.

If Hamas really wants peace and quiet in the Gaza Strip in order to get on with the job of governing and building an Islamic society there, it now knows that the Olmert government has enough good reasons, and senses sufficient public and international pressure, to agree. But in Gaza. Only in Gaza.


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