Ceasefire? What Ceasefire?

By Nadia W. Awad – The West Bank

The Damascus-based exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mesh’al, announced on December 14 that Hamas would not be renewing its ceasefire with Israel. At the same time, Mahmoud Zahhar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, said the group had not made its position final and that the local Hamas leadership was to meet with representatives of the other Palestinian armed groups that same night and afterwards formulate an official policy, which has yet to be announced. Meanwhile, Amos Gilad, the head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Diplomatic-Security Bureau, was in Cairo that same day, reportedly discussing a renewal of the ceasefire with Egyptian officials who brokered the first one nearly six months ago. Reading the various reports, I thought to myself, “Exactly what ceasefire is everybody talking about?”

This has got to be one of the most confusing and ambiguous ceasefires to date. A ceasefire, by definition, is a cessation of hostilities based on the fulfillment of certain terms and conditions. The hostilities, in this case, are not just limited to Israeli military incursions or the firing of Palestinian projectiles. They include, more significantly, the Israeli imposed blockade on Gaza. Specifically, the ceasefire, which took effect in June, called upon Israel to open the Gaza Strip crossing points, allowing in sufficient quantities of fuel, food, goods and building supplies, in exchange for halting cross-border violence between Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers.

Both Israel and Hamas have frequently accused one another of violating the ceasefire throughout the past six months, yet the ceasefire was still considered alive. The blockade, a key stipulation of the ceasefire, was never lifted, yet still the ceasefire was considered valid. When Israel went into Gaza with full force on November 5, killing six Palestinians in the process, only then did people really start questioning the validity of this ceasefire. But even so, talks of ‘renewing’ it were still in the air.

There was even confusion regarding the duration of the ceasefire. Hamas insists that it expires on December 19, but Israel claims it was their understanding that the ceasefire had no specific deadline. To add to the confusion, Israel maintains that even with the ceasefire intact, it reserves the right to ‘defend’ itself against the firing of projectiles. Simultaneously, Hamas reserves the right to retaliate in the event of an Israeli attack. And the cherry on the cake is that both the Hamas and Israeli leaderships seem confused about what their respective stances are on the renewal of the ceasefire. The Damascus and Gaza-based Hamas leaders don’t seem to be on the same page. In Israel, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is claiming he wants a renewal of the ceasefire, while Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is saying that Israel cannot leave Gaza to Hamas rule.

So would somebody please tell me what this ceasefire is about, because from my perspective, this ceasefire is a farce, a sham. Discussing a renewal of it is synonymous with discussing a continuation of the current situation, something Gazans cannot and will not accept. And how can you renew something that was never properly honored?

I can easily understand why some Palestinians argue against the renewal of this ceasefire, because it has cost more Gazans their lives, livelihoods, and futures. It has given Israel diplomatic cover as they single-mindedly pursue their strategy of collective punishment. Don’t misunderstand – I am all for a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, but only one in which the conditions are met from the beginning, with no provisos on the side. In other words, Israel must lift the blockade.

Accusations of violations have flown back and forth for months, but in my opinion, one of the most egregious violations was the failure to open Gaza’s borders. As previously mentioned, the terms of the ceasefire dictated that Israel would open the Gaza Strip crossing points, allowing in ‘sufficient’ quantities of supplies. However, it would appear that the definition of ‘sufficient’ varied for the parties involved. Gaza, which has been under a tight economic blockade since June 2007, has never received ‘sufficient’ supplies. Israel did ease the blockade a little when the ceasefire was first agreed upon, but a UN report released last week indicates that only 25% of necessary goods had made it into the area during the ceasefire. In October, only 123 trucks per day were permitted into the Strip, while Gaza humanitarian officials argued that between 400 and 600 truckloads a day are necessary to sustain the area with its 1.5 million occupants.

After Israel’s deadly invasion in early November, Palestinian fighters threw caution to the wind as they began firing rounds of homemade projectiles, causing little damage and only a few injuries. In retaliation, Israel, for the remainder of the month, closed the Gaza crossings completely, opening them only four times. The power plant was shut down for lack of fuel, and UNRWA had to close its doors for most of the month due to a lack of provisions. This situation remains today and is likely to continue.

Hamas held a rally in Gaza on December 14 to celebrate its 21st anniversary, which a reported 150,000 Gazans attended. Whether they were there to support Hamas or simply to express their anger at the blockade, at Israel, and at the world remains to be seen. But they have every right to be angry. Israel has gotten away with murder, literally and metaphorically. Nearly 20 Palestinians have died since the Israeli invasion on November 5, and the rest are still living in extreme poverty and hardship. Israel is picking and choosing with what is left of this ceasefire, just as it picks and chooses what parts of the peace process it wants to implement or ignore. Talk of a ceasefire renewal is laughable – you can’t renew what never existed. Instead, Hamas and Israel need to start the ceasefire anew, actually fulfilling their commitments. No more projectiles and, more importantly, no more blockade.

(Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – December 15, 2008)

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