Monday, 19 January 2009

Palestinians emerge on cease-fire's first day

Monday, January 19, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - Thousands of Palestinians emerged onto the streets of Gaza on Sunday for the first time in days, after Israel suspended its aerial bombardment and heavy street fighting. But for many who had fled from homes in the areas worst affected by the three-week Israeli military onslaught, there was no homecoming.

Houses, mosques and entire apartment blocks have been reduced to rubble by a combination of Israeli bombing and Hamas' own explosive booby-traps.

Although Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh hailed the cease-fire as wise and responsible, many Gazans had only one question on Sunday: How long will the cease-fire hold? There was a palpable fear that this truce is so fragile it could collapse at the slightest provocation.

In fact, there isn't one cease-fire, but two parallel processes in which each side is studiously refusing to engage the other directly, while making demands that are so tough it is hard to see how they will be kept.

The Israelis stepped up to the plate first, unilaterally announcing they would halt all offensive measures at 2 a.m. Sunday. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would return fire if attacked - as it was repeatedly on Sunday morning - and called for a long-term cease-fire conditioned on an end to rocket attacks from the coastal strip and a halt to weapons smuggling, which it hopes to achieve with the help of Egypt, the United States and other international guarantors.

After dismissing the Israeli move, Hamas announced its own separate truce about 12 hours later, in its turn conditioned on Israeli forces leaving the Gaza Strip within a week and the opening of all border crossings into Israel and Egypt.

Israel said its soldiers could stay longer and has linked opening the crossings to the return of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in June 2006.

Palestinian analyst Khaled Abu Toameh said Hamas was forced to end this round of fighting through sheer exhaustion.

"They had no other choice," said Abu Toameh. "They have been hit hard. Both sides now have an interest in maintaining the cease-fire. Hamas will be too busy reorganizing and rebuilding what was destroyed. They won't have time to fight. They now have an interest in preserving the lull as long as possible."

A six-month cease-fire last year was honored more in the breach, with Israel refusing to open the border crossing and sporadic Hamas rocket attacks - often directed against those same crossings.

Matt Beynon Rees, author of "A Grave in Gaza," said he expects this truce to play out similarly, but he does not expect Hamas will risk another round too soon.

"The cease-fire won't actually mean that the fighting stops, but it'll mean that both sides will overlook small outbursts of violence because they are both desperate to end the big battle that we've seen," said Rees.

"How long it will last depends on how desperate Hamas is to give the people of Gaza some breathing space."

Rees said Hamas is unlikely to survive another Israeli onslaught and therefore will be careful not push the Israelis too far.

"Hamas has to pose as the resistance that refuses to back down, but it's been pummeled as hard as the buildings in Gaza City and it needs some time to rebuild," he said.

Israel and the West would prefer the Fatah-led government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to be in charge, but Fatah has yet to recover from losing the 2006 election to Hamas and then being ousted from Gaza by a Hamas-led effort in June 2007.

Abbas' term as president expired Jan. 9, but he refused to call a new election for fear he would lose that as well. Israel and Egypt are trying to bring Abbas' forces back to supervise the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border, but his return under their protection would only fuel suspicions that he is acting as an agent of the Israeli government.

Replacing Hamas with Abbas' Fatah-led government is no longer a stated aim of the Israeli government, but many Israelis are divided on the question of whether the military operation should have continued with the aim of destroying Haniyeh and his colleagues.

"We cannot eliminate such terror organizations in Gaza unless we stay there for more than a year, go from house to house, from backyard to backyard, and from sewage pit to attic - and even then, we will not see elimination," said Eitan Haber, a former adviser to assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "Those who speak about 'elimination' understand nothing and are just part of the useless chatter. A unilateral cease-fire is the best we can achieve."

But Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who polls suggest will be Israel's next prime minister, thinks differently.

"The Israel Defense Forces have dealt Hamas a severe blow, but unfortunately the job has not been completed," Netanyahu said Sunday.

"Hamas still controls Gaza and will continue to smuggle improved rockets through the Philadelphi route," he said, referring to Gaza's border with Egypt by its Israeli military codename. "We cannot show any weakness in the face of the Iranian-backed Hamas terror and must act with an iron fist to defeat the enemy."

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