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Potentially deadly game of brinkmanship replaces truce

With only days left before the truce between Hamas and Israel reached in June runs out, there is little sign that an extension is likely.

AD200810501790473AR
AD200810501790473AR

RAMALLAH // With only days left before the truce between Hamas and Israel reached in June runs out, there is little sign that an extension is likely. Both sides have been posturing furiously to suggest that neither needs the calm even if, in reality, both want it. The two sides have sent mixed signals about their intentions for when the truce runs out on Dec 19. Israel dispatched a senior defence ministry official to Cairo for talks even as other officials were careful to warn that the country would use force if and when it needed to. Meanwhile, crossings into Gaza for humanitarian supplies only open sporadically.

In Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader, said he did not expect any extension of the truce even as Gaza-based Hamas officials maintained they would not rule it out. Very low-level rocket fire across the border also continues sporadically. All options, in other words, are on the table, but time is running out for any formal decision to be announced. Even though both sides would appear to have firm interests in renewing the ceasefire, which has frayed in recent weeks, for their own reasons each are reluctant to settle for anything that could be construed as a climb down.

Hamas wants crossings into Gaza opened regularly and for more than just humanitarian goods, a stipulation Israel has failed to abide by since June. Although Hamas appears to have dropped its demand that the truce be extended to the West Bank and is merely seeking an extension of what was supposed to have been in place, Israeli ministers are wary of being seen as giving in to any demands by Hamas ahead of a general election in February.

"Israeli public opinion is very hard line and right wing," said Danny Rubinstein, a veteran Israeli journalist, "and politicians want to appease them and talk about attacks and ending the truce." The election, however, is also a reason for Israel to want to preserve quiet around Gaza. Mr Rubinstein said the Israeli government was keen to maintain the calm and there is clearly little appetite among the current crop of ministers and army brass for an extended operation in Gaza that is likely to prove costly both in human and financial terms.

Hence a stalemate has developed in which neither side wants to be seen to lose face while both share an interest in extending the truce. Compounding the problem, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a Gaza-based political analyst, is that Egypt, which mediated the last truce, is reluctant to get involved again. "Egypt is angry with Hamas for boycotting the national dialogue last month and with Israel for not living up to its commitments under the [expiring] truce," said Mr Abusada, who does not foresee a formal renewal of the pact.

"My sense is that we may witness a short-term collapse of the truce right after December 19 to be followed by Arab or international intervention to restore calm," he said. "I think it will become a much more unofficial truce after that, maybe with secret negotiations that will not be followed by any official declarations." Mr Rubinstein also believed that the most likely scenario was an unofficial extension. The danger with such an arrangement, however, is that it is much easier to break. Most importantly, absent an easing of the closure on Gaza, it will be difficult for Hamas to clamp down on other factions.

Gazans have in recent weeks been under severe pressure as a result of Israeli closures that have kept the impoverished strip of land on the brink of starvation. While the closures have eased somewhat in recent weeks, crossings open sporadically at best and international aid organisations continue to warn of a full-blown humanitarian disaster should the blockade not be loosened more consistently. Without such relief it will not take long for low-level violence to heat up. Certainly there will be very little incentive for Hamas to restrain other groups from firing rockets across the border. This, in turn, will increase the pressure on the Israeli government for a major military operation.

A full resumption of violence will also render any reconciliation between the West Bank Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Hamas in Gaza impossible. Aides to Mr Abbas said yesterday that the president was preparing to announce dates for early presidential and parliamentary elections. Dates would be announced early in the new year absent any reconciliation agreement, said aides. But a full-scale resumption of hostilities in and around Gaza will make both reconciliation and early elections impossible.

okarmi@thenational.ae