Amid Rockets and Civil War in Gaza, Israelis Sour on Peace Prospects

By Orly Halpern

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.

Amman, Jordan - Israeli leaders are now scrambling for a strategy to deal with the potential civil war erupting in the Palestinian territories and Hamas rocket attacks on the southern town of Sderot. But even before the latest round of violence, Israeli public opinion was souring on the land-for-peace formula, with Israelis concluding that the Palestinians are not prepared to end the conflict, according to a newly released poll.

Fighting between Hamas and Fatah members erupted May 11 for the fourth time this year, killing more than 50 Palestinians. Two days after the internal Palestinian fighting exploded, Hamas began raining Qassam rockets on Sderot, a city with a population of 22,000, and Israel retaliated with air strikes and a renewed campaign targeting Hamas militants. The result so far has been another 40 Palestinians and one Israeli dead — and mounting political outrage in Israel as hundreds of Sderot residents have fled their homes.

The violence is likely to further erode Israelis’ faith in prospects for peace, which was already at low levels, according to a poll in Yediot Aharonot. Conducted in March but only recently released, the poll found that 58% of Israelis said they now reject the idea of “trading land for peace.” Only 28% said they think the goal of the Palestinians is to regain land conquered in 1967; the rest believe that the Palestinians either want “to destroy the State of Israel” or “to destroy the State of Israel and expel most of the Jews.”

Hamas this week declared its willingness to end the rocket fire as part of a comprehensive truce, encompassing not only Gaza but also the West Bank, where Israel has continued to target militant victims in recent months. Yet it was unclear whether such declarations would stem the mounting calls across much of the Israeli political spectrum for stepped-up military action against Hamas.

Even as they insisted that Hamas needed to pay a steep price for the attacks on Sderot, several Israeli politicians were pressing for aggressive diplomatic steps. In a Tuesday interview with Israel Radio, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh of Labor said that Hamas political leaders, presumably including Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, were legitimate targets for assassination, given their role in ordering the rocket attacks. Yet, in a recent conference call with the Labor Zionist group Ameinu and in an interview with the Forward on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Jordan, Sneh said that Israel should also immediately open permanent-status agreements.

“The Qassams are not a reason not to put an end to the conflict,” he told the Forward. Sneh went on to accuse his own government of diplomatic inaction. “Unfortunately, the government and the prime minister, although they were elected with a clear mandate from the Israeli people to reach a two-state solution, they are too hesitant to do it. I don’t know why.”

In the sort of stark policy reversal that observers see as evidence of the desperation for a way out of the crisis, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is pressing for the deployment of an international force on the Palestinian side of the Gazan-Egyptian border to stop arms smuggling. In a break from Israel’s traditional opposition to any international presence in Palestinian territory, she envisages a force modeled along the lines of the 11,000-strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon contingent patrolling the Lebanese border with Israel, with a similarly “robust” mandate to stop arms smuggling into Gaza from Egypt.

In a meeting earlier this month with foreign ambassadors in Jerusalem, Livni actually put the ball in the international community’s court.

“We are ready to consider such a force, but will you be ready to provide it?” she challenged the assembled dignitaries.

Israeli officials acknowledge that getting the international community to intervene in this way would be a hard sell. But they maintain that if the community doesn’t move to stop the arms smuggling, it won’t be in a position to point fingers if and when Israel does.

Some Arab observers and international experts, including Riad Malki, director general of Panorama, the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, located in Ramallah, are pressing for the introduction of foreign troops. Malki wrote an op-ed this week in which he argued that a force should be stationed in the territories made up of “soldiers from Jordan and Egypt under the flag of the Arab League.”

“Only such a force could save our people,” Malki wrote. “This is the power that would bring hope.”

Both the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, and the top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told the Forward that such a plan involving Arab troops was not on the table. “We are not considering this option,” Erekat said.

The latest violence is shining a spotlight on the debate over how to gauge the long-term intentions of Hamas and devise a strategy for coping with the Islamic militant group.

Since Hamas scored a victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, Israeli and American officials have pressed for a complete diplomatic and financial boycott of the Islamic group and any part of the Palestinian Authority it controls. The isolation should only end, they say, once Hamas endorses a two-state solution, agrees to uphold past Israeli-Palestinian deals and disavows violence. Only then, the thinking in Jerusalem and Washington goes, can Hamas qualify as a legitimate and dependable partner for talks.

Many Israelis are calling for another broad military ground incursion into Gaza to stop Qassam rockets from raining onto the Jewish communities living nearby. The last one was launched in June 2006, after Hamas militants cross the border and kidnapped Gilad Shalit. It lasted until November, causing the death of 417 Palestinians and five Israelis.

The Israeli government, however, is loath to deploy ground forces without clearly defined, achievable goals, following the release of the interim Winograd report on the failures of the government and the military in last summer’s war in Lebanon. In the past, Israeli government and military officials have said that there is no military solution to Qassam attacks.

For the time being, the government is trying to get the international diplomatic pressure on the Palestinians to stop.

“Before any element in Israel gives the order to do battle, we must hold our head up and be able to say that we did all we could to prevent it, to find a diplomatic solution,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz said.

Peretz called on the European Union’s Middle East envoy, Xavier Solana, who visited Sderot last week, to end the transfer of all E.U. aid to the Palestinian government. “We have considered everything, and until this moment we are acting with great tolerance, biting our lips and trying to avoid a situation where we will have to make a ground invasion,” Peretz told Solana on Tuesday. “Now is the test of diplomacy of the European, American and free world.”

In an interview published Tuesday, Ahmed Yousef, senior Hamas member and aide to Haniyeh, said that Hamas could halt its rocket salvos if Israel were to agree to extend to the West Bank a cease-fire called in Gaza last November.

“Israel’s agreement to extend the cease-fire to the West Bank would enable the government headed by Haniyeh to convince the groups to cease firing Qassam rockets,” Yousef told Ha’aretz. “We have the tools to enable us to do this. We are interested in a comprehensive cease-fire, and the question is whether Israel is also interested.”

Israeli officials have made clear that they consider the Gaza truce to be over. Livni said Monday that Israel has to press its current military campaign against Hamas. “We have to understand, as we have understood in the past, that sometimes a cease-fire is also a kind of illusion,” she told reporters. “And we need to understand that even during periods when there is apparently quiet, Hamas exploits it in order to build up its power.”

Some observers are critical of Israeli efforts to isolate and confront Hamas, saying that this approach will only weaken those in the Islamic movement inclined to move in a more moderate direction.

Many observers believe that the military wing of Hamas has become empowered after the failure of its moderate politicians to achieve any gains for the Palestinian people.

“Hamas says that continued attacks can be expected as long as it feels it is denied the right it earned at the ballot box to govern,” Nicholas Pelham said. Pelham is a senior analyst with the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict resolving think tank.

Yoram Meital, a Middle East expert from Ben-Gurion University, offered a similar analysis. “Israel,” he said, “is under the wrong assumption that it can do whatever it wants in the West Bank and that it is not connected to Gaza because it withdrew from Gaza.”

With reporting from Ha’aretz and JTA in Israel.



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