Israel deals with Hamas


A ceasefire began in Gaza on 19 June 2008 at 6 am local time [1].  It’s supposed to last for 6 months, initially.  This is not a unilateral ceasefire by Hamas, which has happened more than once in the past, but a ceasefire negotiated between Hamas and Israel.  Although Hamas and Israeli representatives didn’t meet face to face, and didn’t sign an agreement before TV cameras, there is no doubt that Israel has made a deal with Hamas, albeit through Egyptian intermediaries.


In exchange for the cessation of rocket and mortar fire out of Gaza, Israel has undertaken to end military operations against Gaza and to gradually end its economic strangulation of Gaza.  A few days into the ceasefire, the latter appeared to be happening, first with an increase in humanitarian aid being allowed into Gaza.  Later, other goods were allowed in.


However, the ceasefire doesn’t apply to the West Bank, which is nominally under Fatah control.  There’s a certain irony about that.  For nearly a year, Israel has been “negotiating” continuously with Fatah, the latter having been deemed “a partner for peace” when President Abbas consented to the US overthrow of the democratically elected Hamas-led government in June 2007.  But apparently the cessation of Israeli military operations in the West Bank has not been on the agenda.  By contrast, Israel has now made a deal with what it regards as a terrorist organisation to cease military operations in Gaza.


The fact that the ceasefire does not apply to the West Bank may lead to its derailment.  Already, on 24 June 2008, Islamic Jihad has fired rockets out of Gaza into Sderot, in response to Israeli military operations in the West Bank, which killed two Palestinians including one of their members [2].  And two days later, the Fatah al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades fired a rocket out of Gaza, reportedly as a protest that at the West Bank not having been included in the truce [3].  And as a result, Israel closed the crossings into Gaza again.


Why deal now?

Why has Israel chosen to make a deal with Hamas at this time?  Faced with the problem of preventing the firing of rockets and mortars out of Gaza, it had to choose between (a) a major ground operation against Gaza with the objective of eliminating this capability, or (b) a deal with Hamas to stop the firing out of Gaza, in exchange for an Israeli cessation of military operations in Gaza.


It chose the latter, presumably because a ground operation would involve significant Israeli casualties without a guarantee of success in destroying the capability, let alone preventing it being built up after a subsequent withdrawal.  The Israeli military has no stomach for reoccupying Gaza permanently, which could stop the firing out of Gaza, but at a permanent cost in Israeli blood.


Obviously, the choice of a deal with Hamas doesn’t rule out the possibility of a ground invasion of Gaza later, if the deal doesn’t stop the firing out of Gaza – or even if it does.


A subsidiary reason for Israel making a deal with Hamas at this time seems to be an expectation that it will be followed by a deal for the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.  Negotiations have been going on between Israel and Hamas for a long time about this, again through Egyptian intermediaries, but in the past Israel has not been prepared to release the hundreds of named Palestinian prisoners (including Marwan Barghouti of Fatah) that Hamas wants released in exchange. 


Hamas unilateral ceasefires

Israel could have negotiated a ceasefire arrangement of this kind with Hamas years ago, if it had wished to do so.  There were at least three occasions in the past when Hamas and the other Palestinian factions declared a unilateral ceasefire.  The last occasion was in March 2005 when all factions decided upon a ceasefire at talks in Cairo.  Hamas maintained this ceasefire at up until June 2006.  During this period, other Palestinian groups were still active, but there was very little, if any, military activity by Hamas against Israel, either in Israel itself or in the West Bank or Gaza.


This unilateral ceasefire by Hamas lasted through the Israeli withdrawal of ground troops and settlers from Gaza in August 2005 and elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in January 2006, in which Hamas put up candidates for the first time. 


One might have thought that Israel would have sought this sort of deal at that time, in order to minimise Palestinian military activity out of Gaza after the withdrawal.  There is little doubt that Israel could have reached such a deal with Hamas then had it been prepared to cease military operations in Gaza.  Conceivably, a deal could have been reached to include the West Bank as well.


But Israel’s response to the unilateral ceasefire by Hamas was the exact opposite: it was to intensify military action against Hamas.  This reached a crescendo after Hamas won the PLC elections in January 2006 and the new Olmert government took power after the Israeli elections at the end of March 2006.


The purpose of this Israeli assault was to destroy Hamas, as a military and a political force capable of resisting Israeli plans for Palestine.  Israel was given the green light for this assault by the West’s refusal to accept the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections and its continued characterisation of Hamas as a terrorist organisation.  How could the West object to Israel killing “terrorists”?  And, if bystanders got killed in the process, well, they had probably voted for “terrorists”.  In this context, Israel thought it could get away with a relentless assault on Hamas and it was quite right – the West didn’t object to the killing of well over 100 Palestinians by the Olmert/Peretz government in its first three months in office, at a time when there was no military activity at all by Hamas and little by other Palestinian groups. (See, for example, the casualty statistics compiled by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem [4]).


Hamas stuck to its ceasefire, in the face of this fierce assault, until 25 June 2006 when with other groups it mounted an attack on Israeli troops at Kerem Shalom outside Gaza, as a result of which two Israeli soldiers were killed and Gilad Shalit was captured.  This was the excuse for Israel to further intensify its murderous Israeli assault on Gaza and collectively punish its inhabitants by bombing its only power station.  Again, the West supported, or at least condoned, Israel’s action and joined in the denunciation of taking Gilad Shalit “hostage”, an action that apparently merited more condemnation than the killing of 100 Palestinians in the previous few months and the detention of thousands of Palestinians for years without trial.


In all, Israel killed about 300 Palestinians during the Hamas ceasefire.  More than 1300 Palestinians have been killed since.  According to B’Tselem [4], the number of Palestinians and Israelis killed in recent years is as follows:




Israelis killed












2008 Jan-May








1287 of these Palestinian deaths were in Gaza.


Had Israel arrived at a ceasefire deal with Hamas in 2005 of the kind that it has now done in respect of Gaza, many of these lives, both Israeli and Palestinian, would probably have been saved.


Not an inch

Israel was not prepared to make a deal with Hamas in 2005/6, when it was on ceasefire.  The deal has come about now, because Hamas and other Palestinian militias in Gaza (including the Fatah al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades) have acquired the capability to kill Israeli civilians in Sderot and to make life generally intolerable for civilians there.  It wouldn’t have happened unless Palestinian militias had acquired this capability and been prepared to use it – and if there wasn’t the possibility that other Israeli towns would be within range in the near future.


Israel’s default position towards Palestinians is that, in order to encourage them to leave Palestine, their lives should be made as miserable as is possible without provoking reaction from the outside world that could be damaging to Israel’s long term interests.  Since the outside world is remarkably tolerant of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, this isn’t much of a limitation.


So, in the absence of outside pressure to force Israel to improve their lives, and make a reasonable settlement with them, Palestinians have no option but to apply military pressure on Israel in whatever limited way they can.  The fruitless “negotiations” with Fatah over the past year provide the latest illustration that Israel won’t give an inch without pressure, either internal or external – there are now more barriers, and more settlers, in the West Bank than there were a year ago, and a Palestinian state is as far away as ever.


David Morrison

30 June 2008