Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Hamas Agrees to One-Week Cease-Fire in Gaza Conflict

Posted in politics by allisonkilkenny on January 18, 2009

New York Times

Palestinians searched for bodies in the rubble of a building after Israeli forces withdrew from the area east of Gaza City on Sunday. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

Palestinians searched for bodies in the rubble of a building after Israeli forces withdrew from the area east of Gaza City on Sunday. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

JERUSALEM — Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in Gaza announced an immediate, week-long cease-fire in the conflict with Israel on Sunday, about 12 hours after an Israeli unilateral cease-fire went into effect.

The Palestinian groups said in a statement that they would give Israeli troops a week to leave Gaza. Hamas leaders outside Gaza had previously said the group would continue fighting so long as Israeli troops remained on the ground.

The cease-fire announcement, coming after 22 days of war that killed more than 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, was confirmed by the Palestinian groups’ exiled leaders meeting in Damascus.

It came after Egypt held talks with Hamas representatives, and as European and Arab leaders gathered in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheik for a summit meeting designed to turn the fragile truce into a more durable arrangement. Egypt has been trying to broker a longer-term deal between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas demands the opening of the crossings on Gaza’s borders, while Israel is seeking an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza across the Egyptian border, and an halt to Hamas rocket fire.

Palestinian militants in Gaza fired about 13 rockets at southern Israel on Sunday morning in the hours after the unilateral cease-fire declared by Israel went into effect. One struck a house in the port city of Ashdod, lightly wounding one Israeli. The Israeli military said it carried out two airstrikes against rocket-launching squads. There were conflicting news reports of casualties in Gaza, with either one man or one girl said to have been killed.

Early Sunday, a Hamas gunman clashed with Israeli troops inside Gaza, but otherwise the situation inside the Palestinian enclave seemed relatively calm, according to residents and health officials.

The breaches were predictable: Israeli officials had said that a flurry of rocket launches, to prove that Hamas is neither cowed nor defeated, was likely for at least a short time. Schools in Israeli cities within rocket range of Gaza were ordered closed for the day.

And while Israel has called off its major offensive against Hamas, political leaders and the military have emphasized that Israel will respond to any attacks.

Israel declared late Saturday that its unilateral cease-fire would begin at 2 a.m. on Sunday, but said its troops would stay in place for now. Some tanks and infantry could be seen leaving Gaza on Sunday morning, but more remained inside.

In announcing that Israeli forces would halt their advance, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted that “we have reached all the goals of the war, and beyond.” Speaking to the nation late Saturday night, he said that Hamas had “suffered a major blow.”

Heavy Israeli bombardment continued in the hours before the cease-fire. And in an attack early Saturday that brought scathing criticism from the United Nations, Israeli tank fire killed two young brothers taking shelter at a United Nations school in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.

About 1,600 displaced Gazans have taken shelter at the school, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or Unrwa, which cares for Palestinian refugees from the 1948-49 war and their descendants.

John Ging, the Gaza director of the agency, said that the brothers, ages 5 and 7, were killed about 7 a.m. by Israeli fire at the school. Their mother, who was among 14 others wounded, had her legs blown off.

“These two little boys are as innocent, indisputably, as they are dead,” Mr. Ging said. “The question now being asked is: is this and the killing of all other innocent civilians in Gaza a war crime?”

The strike was the fourth time Israel has hit an Unrwa school during the war on Hamas. On Jan. 6, Mr. Ging said, 43 people died when an Israeli shell hit the compound of a school in Jabaliya. Israel has disputed the death toll and said it had been returning mortar fire from within the school compound.

The Israeli Army said that it was investigating the reports at the highest level, but that initial inquiries indicated that troops were returning fire from near or within the school.

As President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France were hosting the summit meeting in Sharm el Sheik on Sunday, the immediate topics were to be the interdiction of smuggling and the reconstruction of Gaza after the Israeli air and land attack, which has left large areas of the crowded territory in ruins and without basic services like potable water and electricity.

But the shape of any lasting peace was far from clear.

The length of Israel’s occupation of Gaza has now been put in the hands of Hamas. The Israeli government says it will not sign any deal with the group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and whose rule over Gaza the Israelis do not want to recognize. But Hamas is seen as likely to reassert political control over Gaza.

And Israel and Egypt will be under considerable pressure to reopen its crossings into Gaza for goods, given the size of the reconstruction required, and the crossings for people.

Particularly concerned about limiting smuggling into Gaza, the United States and Israel signed a “memorandum of understanding” on Friday in Washington that calls for expanded cooperation to prevent Hamas from rearming through Egypt. The agreement, which is vague, promises increased American technical assistance and international monitors, presumably to be based in Egypt, to crack down on the smuggling.

As important, the United States agreed to work with NATO partners to interdict arms smuggling into Gaza by land and sea from Syria and Iran, and in a letter, Britain, France and Germany also offered to help.

The summit meeting in Egypt on Sunday will also include Italy; Spain; Turkey; Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general; and a representative of the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank. The United States was to be represented by Margaret Scobey, the ambassador to Egypt.

Although Mr. Sarkozy began the diplomatic process toward a cease-fire with Mr. Mubarak, it has been a deal shaped by Egypt and Israel.

Mr. Mubarak’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said that his country would not be bound by the memorandum of understanding agreed to by the United States and Israel and would not accept foreign troops on its soil. But officials of both Israel and the United States say Egypt has been showing a new seriousness about stopping the smuggling.

The Arab and Muslim world again appeared to be split into two camps. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been openly critical of Hamas, pressing it to agree to a cease-fire. Qatar, meanwhile, which has close ties to both the United States and Iran, held a meeting with Syria, Iran, Mauritania and Hamas’s exiled political leader, Khaled Meshal, as the Palestinian representative. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who is supported by the United States and Egypt, had refused to go to Qatar.

Four Israeli soldiers, two of them officers, were seriously hurt by mortar fire in fighting on Saturday morning, the army said, suggesting that they were victims of friendly fire. Five others were also wounded by an antitank missile. While the details are debated and the dead are counted, a critical long-term issue is whether the Gaza operation restores Israel’s deterrent. Israel wants Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and the Arab world to view it as too strong and powerful to seriously threaten or attack. That motivation is one reason, Israeli officials say, for going into Gaza so hard, using such firepower, and fighting Hamas as an enemy army.

The answer will not be known for many months, but the key to the Muslim world’s reaction is actually that of the Israeli public, said Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem. “The Arabs take their cue from Israeli responses,” he said. “Deterrence is about how Israelis feel, whether they feel they’ve won or lost.”

Mr. Halevi cited the 1973 war — which Egyptians celebrate and Israelis mourn, though it ended with a spectacular Israel counterattack — and the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, apologized for the 2006 war on television, “but he quickly reversed himself to declare a wonderful victory when he saw the Israeli public declaring defeat,” Mr. Halevi said.

Even more important, perhaps, this war is a test case for any potential Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. If Israelis feel that the West Bank will turn into another kind of chaotic, Hamas-run Gaza, they will be unwilling to withdraw — especially if they believe that if they withdrew and were then attacked from the West Bank, they would not be allowed to respond with force.

“Gaza is an important test of whether we can defend ourselves within the 1967 boundaries,” Mr. Halevi said, noting that Hamas had been attacking Israel proper, not settlements. “Will we be able to defend ourselves if we need to from the West Bank? Will the international community let us?”

The Israeli public has stayed united behind the war as a necessary battle, despite serious misgivings about the death toll of Palestinian civilians and international condemnation. Even Meretz, a party of the Israeli left, supported the air war.

Hamas has modeled itself on Hezbollah, calling on Iranian support. Mr. Nasrallah once spoke of Israeli power as a spider web — impressive from afar, but easily brushed aside. This war against Hamas, Mr. Halevi said, “is the revenge of the spider.”

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