By Liam Baily
The Gaza ceasefire was born in a hurry, Israel’s hard-line leaders want to kill it just as quickly.
The ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian militant factions is still holding, but everyday brings it nearer to collapse. The ceasefire came into effect Nov. 26 and it was breached in the first two hours. Two rockets were fired by Palestinian militants, who doubted Israel’s commitment to the deal. Shortly afterwards, Israel’s leadership allowed the deployment of Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces to patrol the Gaza/Israel border and Hamas’ leadership assured the militant factions of its optimism of Israel’s commitment to the ceasefire. There were no more rocket attacks on the first day.
The ceasefire was agreed when PA President Mahmoud Abbas telephoned Olmert after meeting with the leaders of all Palestinian armed resistance groups. The terms for the truce offer were agreed in the meeting late Saturday Nov. 25. Olmert agreed to the truce, because unlike the earlier offer it promised an end to all forms of Palestinian violence. The earlier offer promised only an end to rocket attacks in return for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and a halt to all IDF operations in the strip.
The ceasefire is nearer than ever to collapse. Israel has killed five Palestinians in West Bank operations, since the day after the ceasefire came into effect. The first, a dawn raid carried out in the early hours of Monday Nov. 27, killed one militant and a woman trying to run away with his gun. Palestinian militants responded with the first rocket attacks since the two early breaches of the ceasefire. In recent West Bank operations, 15 Palestinians were detained by IDF forces in the early hours of Dec. 4. Later the Bethlehem chief of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Mahamud Fanun, who has been wanted by Israel for several years, was detained on suspicion of terrorist activities, according to the Israeli army and Palestinian security officials. The West bank raids have so far been met with between 5 and 20 Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza, depending on which report you read. Palestinian groups claimed there was Israeli artillery fire into the strip Dec. 3, but the reports are unconfirmed.
Monday Dec 4 brought an announcement from Israel’s Defense minister Ephraim Sneh on army radio "Instructions have been issued to avoid unnecessary frictions and to abstain from actions that could serve as a pretext" for Palestinian militants to break the tentative ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Army radio also reported that arrest raids would now have to be ordered by senior army command instead of by brigade commanders as was previously the case. The moves came from a meeting of Israel parliament’s –powerful– Foreign Affairs and Defence committee. Olmert also told the Committee Monday that the Gaza truce was necessary because “the military operation that took place in recent months in the Gaza Strip did not stop the (rocket) fire". The government had previously resisted pressure, including from Condoleezza Rice and the U.S to end its West Bank operations. The actions, which Israeli leadership said were necessary to thwart suicide attacks, undermined the restraint Israel has shown in Gaza and the ceasefire as a whole
However the announcement did not bring renewed hope for a lasting peace. The IDF is reluctant to see the ceasefire continue from command level down. According to Haaretz, IDF field commanders in Gaza oppose the Security Cabinet’s guidelines, which prohibit any extensive operations in Gaza and allow air strikes on terror activity only on the joint authority of the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister, as oppose to the Chief of Staff only as was previously the case. The IDF fears the militants are using the ceasefire to re-arm.
Just how instrumental the IDF can be in the ceasefire’s life or death and just how little difference the new instructions made was evident in the news coming from the West Bank as I wrote this article just hours after the announcement was made. In just one hour between five and six PM UK time Dec. 4, A Qassam rocket launched at Israel fell short of the target, landing in PA controlled Gaza. And there were reports of two Palestinians killed, two wounded and one detained in various operations in the West Bank, no IDF casualties were reported. Arutz Sheva reorted that IDF forces operating in PA controlled Kalkiye wounded an armed gunman and took another terrorist into custody. The International Herald Tribune reported on IDF forces surrounding a militant’s home and in Tulkarm demanding his surrender. The militant Assan Yaish, who was affiliated with the Fatah party and wanted for planning an attack on Israel was shot and wounded as he attempted to escape. The unidentified man with him was killed. In another Tulkarm operation YNET News reported that IDF forces killed a Fatah activist in a café in Tulkarm, also killing a Palestinian boy. Overnight Dec. 4 Israeli forces killed one Palestinian and arrested a further 17 in various operations in the West Bank.
Haaretz’ Gideon Levy used recent history to show how actions like these, assassinations and raids can end ceasefires and destroy peace initiatives. As they have every other cease-fire since the Al Aqsa Intifada began Sep. 2000.
The IDF actions, contrary to the government’s instructions are evidence of the internal rift in the Israeli government over the Gaza ceasefire, and the lack of support for the ceasefire from senior IDF officers and government officials. Supported by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and others, Prime Minister Olmert is doing everything in his power to keep the ceasefire alive, to try and reduce his political career from the pits of public opinion. On the other hand Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and opposition leaders like Likud’s Benjamin Nethanyahu take the IDF line, that the terrorists are using the ceasefire to re-arm, and, supporting the West bank raids would quite happily lay the ceasefire to rest.
Reuven Kossover a Jewish writer and proud Israeli told me: “Amir Peretz is not competent for the job. Period. To put it politely, they are both the kinds of people I’d fire in five minutes if they were working in my establishment. Peretz has demonstrated his inability to represent Tza"hal (the IDF) at the highest levels of government. He has demonstrated his inability to prosecute a war. This recent Lebanon war over the summer is the first military defeat for the IDF that cannot be argued away.”
Fortunately Israel’s security cabinet took the Prime Minister’s line over Peretz’. Deciding –officially– Sunday Dec. 3, to continue the restraint being shown in Gaza, but not to expand the ceasefire to the West Bank, as the Palestinians, echoed by Rice and the U.S have called for. According to (link above) Arutz Sheva during the Sunday meeting Olmert said: we must act responsibly and wisely, while considering all aspects of the matter." Livni expressed similar sentiments, but Amir Peretz said that the IDF would fire on Palestinians involved in launching rockets at Israel.
After the security cabinet’s decision not to expand the ceasefire to the West Bank, the Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade, loosely affiliated with PA President Abbas’ Fatah party gave Israel 14 days to expand the ceasefire or face fresh attacks. Similar statements from Hamas leaders, also warned that the West Bank operations could bring retaliation, as they pulled out of talks with other militant groups on how to enforce the shaky truce. On the grounds that the negotiations were a distraction from negotiations to form a unity government, and that those negotiations should take precedence.
The threats and ultimatums became active plans when Islamic Jihad announced Dec. 3 that it was planning to restart attacks on Israel “In the coming hours”. In a further statement even more detrimental to hopes of the ceasefire lasting: Walid al-Obaidi AKA Abu al-Qasam, commander of Islamic Jihad’s Al Quds brigades in the west bank said Monday Dec. 4 that the group had the right to launch suicide attacks on Israel whenever necessary. The statement was in response to Israel’s claim that the army arrested two Islamic Jihad militants on their way into Israel to blow themselves up. Obaidi said: “The allegation came as part of psychological war that occupation troops conduct against our people and resistance.” While urging Gaza militants not to abide by any ceasefire unless it covers the West Bank, to “respond to Israeli violations” and “go back to the track of resistance.” Saying that the Palestinian territories were one part that can not be divided, he added: “The retaliation of Al-Quds Brigades will not delay and will be painful and terrible."
So, the announced instructions for the IDF to avoid causing friction and reduce activities in the West Bank, no matter how redundant they prove may well have come too late to save the ceasefire. When Olmert and Abbas agreed on the terms of the truce the Israeli military was only operating in Gaza, so Abbas made the offer in return for an end to Israeli actions in Gaza and an immediate withdrawal. There have been no Israeli military actions in Gaza since, but under 24 hours later the IDF launched a fresh wave of operations in the West Bank, which brought fresh Qassam attacks in response. Since the Qassam attacks again rained on Israel from Gaza, Israel’s leadership has been praised for the restraint it has shown not retaliating or re-launching operations against militants in the coastal strip “to give the truce a chance to take hold”. The continued raids, killing Palestinians in the West bank however, tell a different story.
The raids are launched under the heading of preventing attacks the IDF have intelligence of being planned. If this is true why did the first raid in months coincide with the Gaza truce? When surely there would have been more IDF troops available to patrol the West Bank security barrier than usual? Which would have stood just as high a chance of stopping attacks and without running just as high a risk of provoking them? Why risk peace to stop a suicide attack from the West bank, when the West Bank security barrier since the last suggests the 12 meter high dividing wall is preventing such attacks? And finally, if Israel hadn’t began the operations in the West Bank, instead displaying real commitment to peace and the offers being made –by Olmert–, would the militants have risked an opportunity of getting their own state to launch the first suicide attack in 7 months?
These glaring questions present a possibility in my mind: Did Israel want to take advantage of yet another wonderful opportunity for peace? Or as doubts arise over U.S support for Israel’s occupation now the Democrat’s have congress, and with a Middle East visit by Bush (14) scheduled for shortly after the ceasefire was announced. Did Israeli leaders want to re-affirm their appearance as being committed to peace, while the Palestinian extremists, unwilling to compromise continue launching attacks? Reuven Kossover told me Dec. 5: “Crime Minister Olmert demonstrated [in the Lebanon war] his ability to frame questions in only two lights. The first light is "What does it get me right now?" And the second is what will the Americans think?" He also said: “If the "cease fire" with the PA holds more than a week after Bush departs the region, I’ll be shocked.” It currently looks like his prediction was correct.
The Palestinian Authority and militant factions haven’t helped themselves, their people or chances of peace either however. If they could just find some common ground and form a unity government, which collectively at least recognises Israel and denounces violence. Obviously something more than the (collective punishment) dire poverty the world’s embargo on the Hamas government is causing the general Palestinian public, is needed to justify putting their difference aside. The Palestinian resistance groups can not yet see the futility of their threats, which to Israel are like a giant being threatened with a fly swat. It seems they would sooner sacrifice themselves to fight for the freedom of the Palestinian people, than do what so many have done before… unite in the face of a common enemy and settle differences when that enemy is defeated. This usually applies in war but the Palestinians are already fighting as one, they need to engage in diplomacy as one collective and eternally more powerful voice. I respect the Palestinian militant factions for their resolve in the face of adversity and in the face of months of heavy Israeli bombardment and military incursions this year and Israel’s disproportionate reactions through the years. But their failure to see that Israel’s actions in the West Bank, which, technically, aren’t in breach of the ceasefire, are a strategy meant to provoke the Palestinians into breaking the truce, once again returning the moral high ground to Israel.
If Israel’s leadership had really wanted the truce to take hold, surely they could have put off the West Bank arrest raids, to, as John Lennon sang: Give peace a chance. When the rocket attacks eventually justify a harsh response from Israel, they will have a golden opportunity. To topple the Hamas government while assuring U.S support.