Shaul Arieli
The Daily Star (Opinion)
June 18, 2008 - 4:41pm

The policy of "throwing away the keys" that characterized the Israeli withdrawal and removal of settlements from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 played right into Hamas' hands as it sought to achieve political and social objectives based on a strategy of "armed struggle" and non-recognition of Israel.

In the absence of a significant peace process and against the backdrop of Fatah\'s failure to maintain an effective ruling authority and sound government, Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections, formed a Palestinian Authority government and rounded out its victory with a military takeover of the Gaza Strip last year. Israel responded by galvanizing an international consensus in favor of boycotting Hamas and recognizing the Fatah-led government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. It followed through politically with the goal of bringing about the collapse of Hamas rule in Gaza and constraining its military expansion and the threat it projects to the surrounding towns and kibbutzim. Israel limited and even stopped the passage of goods into Gaza and encouraged reinforcement of the Egyptian military deployment along the Philadelphi road in order to prevent smuggling.

This is the political backdrop to the Israel-Hamas military struggle. Israel is deploying its military in a series of operations defined by two basic political assumptions. In view of the cost involved and particularly considering the absence of an actor, new or old, to whom it can transfer responsibility, it is avoiding full reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. But it is also avoiding accepting a cease-fire along the conditions proffered by Hamas. This reflects its fear of bolstering Hamas\' prestige and of facilitating Hamas\' military growth, stabilization of its rule in Gaza, enhancement of its status in the West Bank, and damage to Fatah\'s status - to the extent of the latter\'s collapse and cancellation of the international boycott of Hamas rule.

This operational policy has for the past two years nourished an asymmetrical struggle. Israel launches daily attacks against armed personnel inside Gaza, bringing about hundreds of casualties every month at a minimal cost to itself. And Hamas strikes at Israeli civilian population concentrations in the Gaza region with rockets and mortars - for which Israel still lacks an effective defensive or offensive response.

The Egyptian-mediated negotiations over a cease-fire are drawn out because of the different ways the two sides approach their objectives. Hamas sees a cease-fire first and foremost as a way of removing the boycott; it is prepared to reciprocate with delayed implementation in the West Bank. Israel seeks to begin with a mutual cease-fire and wants to prioritize and delay for as long as possible an ending of the Gaza siege and a cease-fire with Hamas in the West Bank. Israel, which enjoys the military advantage, wants to integrate release of the captured soldier Gilad Shalit into the deal and pay in return the lowest possible price in released Palestinian prisoners.

Until agreement is reached, if it is reached at all, both sides continue to pursue the military track in an attempt to augment cease-fire conditions. Occasionally they even violate their shared informal "understandings" regarding the use of force: Hamas, by firing Grad rockets at Ashkelon and Netivot inside Israel; the Israeli armed forces, by launching broader and deeper ground operations than usual.

Recent political and domestic developments are also relevant to cease-fire conditions: First, the "Talansky affair" implicating Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is understood by the Palestinian public as ending President Mahmoud Abbas\' promise to deliver an agreement for the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. This failure removes the most significant threat mounted against Hamas, which feared the cease-fire would be exploited by Israel and Fatah to present the Palestinian public with an agreement. It even strengthens Hamas\' policy of negotiating under fire - a policy increasingly preferred by Fatah activists and by the general public too, as an unavoidable tool for negotiating not just a Gaza cease-fire but peace as well.

Second, the electoral campaign anticipated in Israel in the coming months is liable to cause most Israeli political parties to adopt more extreme positions, thereby feeding into Hamas\' internal-Palestinian propaganda campaigns.

Third, the most recent visit to Tehran by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, held against the backdrop of the Syrian-Israeli announcement regarding renewal of negotiations, produced an increase of Iranian aid to Hamas to total $250 million a year and a commitment to supply enhanced weaponry.

And fourth, with recent statements by Fatah activists in mind, Hamas has of late concentrated on trying to bring about Qatari involvement in mediating between the two movements. The prime minister of the Hamas-led government, Ismail Haniyya, visited the offices of the Qatari representative in Gaza, while senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahhar held a similar meeting in Doha. This gambit has media and psychological importance in view of the successful Qatari mediation among Lebanese factions last May. Similarly, Qatari involvement is likely to mean a Hamas-Fatah dialogue that favors Hamas and that offers a way for Hamas to counter the views of Egypt, which seeks to maintain exclusivity in mediating between both Hamas and Israel and Hamas and the Palestinian Authority\'s leadership.

Given these developments, Hamas is, ironically, prepared to relax its conditions and agree to a "test of intentions" before Israel opens the Gaza passages. It believes that current and anticipated conditions - the absence of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the weakening of Fatah, a new American president, Iran\'s stronger position - will enable it to enjoy the "fruits" of a cease-fire more than Israel, until the cease-fire can in any case be improved upon. Israel for its part is still delaying its response, against the backdrop of new political tensions between the minister of defense, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert.

Shaul Arieli is a former commander of the northern brigade in the Gaza Strip and headed the Negotiations Management Center under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He is a senior research associate at the Economic Research Foundation. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter that publishes contending views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.



American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017