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Israel and Hamas agree to a ceasefire in Gaza

Posted by uscsjp on June 18, 2008

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“AFTER weeks of indirect negotiations using Egyptian mediation Israel confirmed on Wednesday June 18th that it and Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza strip, had reached a ceasefire agreement. Barring a last-minute escalation, hostilities between Israel and the militant groups in Gaza will cease on the morning of June 19th.

According to reports, the two sides agreed to start with three days of calm. If that holds, Israel will allow some construction materials and merchandise into Gaza, slightly easing an economic blockade that it has imposed since Hamas wrested control of the strip from its secularist political rival, Fatah, a year ago. The next phase will be to renew talks on an exchange of Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who will complete two years of captivity in Gaza next week.

For a long time a ceasefire seemed unattainable. Israel had wanted Mr Shalit’s release to be part of a deal from the outset, while Hamas insisted that the ceasefire extend to the West Bank too. That both sides have agreed to allow these stages to come later is a sign of their need for some respite.

Gazan militants have rained a steady stream of Qassam rockets on to Israeli towns neighbouring the strip and have fired the occasional longer-range Grad at the coastal city of Ashkelon. The inaccurate rockets kill rarely, but keep a large population terrorised. Israel’s attacks on Gaza have been more targeted, far bloodier—some 370 Gazans dead since the beginning of this year, of whom at least 70 were children—but quite ineffectual at reducing the rocket fire.

Just as ineffectual has been Israel’s economic stranglehold. Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians in opinion polls seems to rise when Gaza is under the most pressure. But what was left of the Gazan economy, after two years of sanctions that Israel imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won an election in 2006, has been laid waste by the past year’s blockade, in which Israel has allowed in only minimal levels of humanitarian goods and fuel.

However, there is still plenty that could go wrong. While other militant groups in Gaza have indicated that they will respect the ceasefire, there are quite a few who could try to spoil it. Among them are members of Fatah. Fatah is still smarting at Hamas’s takeover last year and does not want to see anything that could strengthen it.

Moreover, the ceasefire will fall apart unless the two sides keep moving towards each others’ demands, and both are reluctant to do so. Hamas will want Israel to keep gradually lifting its economic siege, but Israel’s ultimate goal is still to weaken Hamas in favour of Fatah, with whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, it is holding peace talks. Israel, meanwhile, wants Hamas to reduce the smuggling of weapons through tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt, but Hamas considers that the arms are essential to beefing itself up against a possible Israeli military incursion. In short, the ceasefire is likely to last only as long as neither side feels it is benefiting the other one too much.

If it collapses or never gets off the ground, talk will return to the possibility of a massive incursion by Israel’s army to wipe out Hamas’s military supremacy. Politicians and security officials alike have been saying recently that it is only a matter of time, but in practice they will be cautious about launching one, since the cost in lives to the Israeli army, let alone the Palestinians, could be huge.

The ceasefire deal is something of a victory for the defence minister, Ehud Barak, who has challenged Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, to step down over a corruption scandal. Overseeing a military operation would be a risk for Mr Barak when he is running for election. But the timing may not end up being in his hands.”

–The Economist, June 18, 2008

http://www.economist.com/world/africa/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11570543&CFID=10026660&CFTOKEN=90232486

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