Reason to Believe?

By Joharah Baker

The question lingering in the air right now is, "What will make this time any different?" Ceasefire agreements between Israel and Hamas have been reached before, all of which have flown right out the window with the slightest provocation. Nevertheless, it is nearly impossible for the Palestinians not to get their hopes up at the news that a "tahdi’ah" agreement has been reached through Egyptian mediation between the two warring parties, effective as of June 19.

The agreement has been months in the making, with both Hamas and Israel copping out at the last moment, both citing the other side’s intransigence. This time, the deal went through, with an announcement on June 17 that both sides have agreed to "halt all hostilities and all military activities" in the Gaza Strip. According to the agreement, trade crossings will be opened and the blockade lifted off of essential goods. In week two of the ceasefire, Egypt will host representatives from Hamas, the Palestinian presidency and European parties to Cairo to discuss a mechanism for reopening the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Ostensibly, the ceasefire is to last for six months and will then be implemented in the West Bank, according to Egypt.

These seem like grandiose plans when the reality of the situation on the ground is considered, not to mention past attempts at maintaining calm in Gaza. Just hours after Egyptian and Palestinian sources announced that a deal had been reached, Israeli air strikes killed six Palestinians, five of whom were members of the Islamic Jihad’s Al Quds Brigades. In the course of two days, Israeli military strikes have killed 10 people in Gaza.

Still, Israel is maintaining it will stick to the deal if Hamas reciprocates. Israeli defense ministry official Amos Gilad said on June 18 that Israel would "exhaust all possibilities" but that the ceasefire is in no way a peace agreement. In almost the same breath, however, Israeli government officials have warned they have not let down their guard, not by a long shot. Should the truce fall apart, Israel is prepared to carry out large-scale military action into the Strip.

This "one foot in one foot out" policy is hardly exclusive to Israel. Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal also expressed this cautious optimism when he both endorsed the ceasefire and also warned Israel that if it violated it, Hamas would be right there to reciprocate. "If you go back, we go back," he said simply.

Egypt should at least take credit for getting the ball rolling. One major sticking point that had previously stifled all other ceasefire efforts was the fate of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, taken captive by Hamas in June 2006. Israel has so far insisted that Shalit be released before any ceasefire agreement is reached. Hamas would not heed the demand, insisting for their part that Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails be set free in exchange. According to Egypt, Israel has agreed to separate the Shalit issue from the ceasefire deal.

All the same, realistically speaking, how much can we hope for from this new ‘tahdi’ah’? While the Palestinian presidency has also jumped on board, with President Abbas endorsing the ceasefire, calm in Gaza always seems to be hanging by a thread. The mutual distrust between Israel and Hamas has already started seething from both sides, each threatening to strike back hard if the other drops the ball. Israel has already jumped the gun even before the ceasefire sees the light of day, postulating that it fears armed Palestinian factions would carry out an attack on Israeli targets just before the ceasefire goes into effect just to flex their muscles.

Such an atmosphere of suspicion coupled with the fact that the agreement does not come even close to resolving the core issues of the Gaza Strip, all give cause for doubt. Israel has always said it retains the right to act independently of any agreement or truce it reaches with the Palestinians. In other words, it can invade the Gaza Strip, assassinate its activists, level land and blockade its crossings whenever its "security" is at risk.

Hamas understands this completely and has thus said it would retaliate immediately should Israel breach the agreement. So, even though the ceasefire has not even left the womb, ill intentions and suspicions have already spoiled the before-party.

In the best-case scenario, such a ceasefire agreement would constitute a stepping stone to more comprehensive truces between Israel and the Palestinians and perhaps bring some peace to the residents of Gaza who have suffered far too long under Israel’s grueling blockade and continuous military attacks.

However, the more likely scenario – at the risk of putting a damper on the joyous news – is that the ceasefire will bring temporary reprieve to the people, bring about a lull in Israeli attacks on the Gazans and a halt of homemade Palestinian rockets into Israel, but will constantly be on the brink of collapse. This is not to belittle the Egyptian efforts in mediating the ceasefire or the Palestinian and Israeli consent to it, but is more of a reality check than anything else. As long as Israel still maintains its occupation over Palestine, including its revised form in the Gaza Strip, no ceasefire deal can ever be lasting.

Nevertheless, this is not a time for skepticism. If a halt of hostilities holds between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, perhaps this will give the Palestinians ample time to put their own house in order. While the Fateh/Hamas rift has somewhat narrowed with the Abbas initiative, there are still significant differences between the two, namely who has rightful control over Gaza. If the two parties step back from the dangerous precipice they have been hanging over, it will give them the opportunity to reunite and concentrate their efforts on the larger picture.

This is also a potential opportunity for Israel. Even while instability and hostilities in Gaza might serve Israel’s interests in keeping the Palestinians disunited, a major Israeli incursion into the Strip does not. Israel learned from the Lebanon War that military incursions into somewhat uncharted territory often cost them dearly without reaping any major political gains. A period of calm in the Gaza Strip would allow Israel to also focus on pumping up the West Bank government under President Abbas, which it is hoping will eventually overcome a weakened Hamas.

So, whether this ceasefire holds for six months or not, at least it might give the people there a moment to breathe. Even a few months of no Israeli shelling, no incursions and relaxed borders is better than the open-air prison they have endured for too long.

– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (This article was originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)

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