Reports that Hamas may be ready by week’s end to renew its cease-fire with Israel are being viewed skeptically by Israeli analysts.
Hamas is said to be considering releasing Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in return for a large number of Palestinian prisoners and the reopening of the Gaza border with Israel.
It is believed that the current Israeli government may be more willing to make concessions than the one chosen next Tuesday in national elections, where right-wing parties appear strongest. Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu holds a narrow lead in the polls.
“What is Hamas waiting for?” asked Tamir Sheafer, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Anytime I look for logic in Hamas, I can’t find it.”
He said both Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who is the current defense minister, and Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister, “may both benefit if such a deal” can be worked out. And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced his resignation in September because of his involvement in a corruption investigation, would also like to make it happen.
“I would assume that would be the best thing for Olmert — to leave office with Gilad Shalit at his side,” Sheafer said.
Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups in a cross border raid in June 2006 and is believed to have been held in Gaza ever since.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, pointed out that it would be “easier for Olmert to release a lot of terrorists than any other leader after Tuesday’s election.” But he said he did not believe such a release would help Livni.
“She has said she did not want to give away the store and that such a release of Shalit would only encourage more terrorism,” he said, adding that Israelis would be pleased to see Shalit freed, but “the price would be very high and we would pay for it in the future” with future Israeli abductions.
Talk of the prisoner exchange came from a senior Hamas official who told the Palestinian media Tuesday that Israel had offered to reopen its border with Gaza and allow in 75 percent of the goods it currently bans in exchange for Shalit’s release. The rest of the material Israel would continue to bar in the belief it could be used to make weapons.
The official, Salah al-Bardawil, said Hamas would be ready to begin a prisoner exchange late this week.
“We don’t oppose addressing the Shalit case in tandem with cease-fire negotiations, but we asked for explanations about the nature of the material Israel won’t let in,” he was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Israeli Air Force bombed tunnels along the Gaza-Egyptian border that were being used to smuggle into Gaza weapons and other supplies. The bombing came in response to the firing of a Grad-model Katyusha rocket into Ashkelon earlier in the day. It was the first rocket to hit the city since Israel’s 22-day assault on Hamas terrorists in Gaza ended January 18.
The rocket landed in a residential area near the city’s sports stadium and damaged homes and vehicles in the area. Three people were treated for shock.
Mordechai Kedar, an Arab expert and researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said Hamas’ goal is to strike a ship in Ashdod harbor.
“Hezbollah [in Lebanon] is aiming at Haifa’s harbor,” he said during an interview here this week. “In this way, Hamas and Hezbollah will paralyze maritime traffic to Israel.”
Hamas and Hezbollah are tentacles of the “Iran octopus” that Israel is fighting by proxy, Kedar stressed.
He said that despite efforts by Egypt to bridge the divide between the secular Fatah faction in the West Bank and Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip, such a union is not possible. Kedar said that since June 2007, when Hamas forced Fatah out of Gaza in a bloody civil war, “the divorce is permanent.
“The Middle East is an area that does not solve its problems, it just covers them over,” he explained. “But pretty soon the crust breaks and they try again [to cover it up]. Europe was able to solve deep problems it suffered for centuries, but in the Middle East the solution will come only when the other side vanishes.”
But Hamas, which was badly battered in last month’s Israeli offensive, is still very much alive and kicking. Rather than grasping at a lifeline, its leadership this week rejected a call by Middle East Quartet envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to join the peace process. In an interview with The Times of London, Blair said Hamas must be brought into the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. “Pushing Gaza aside” and attempting to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank alone “was never going to work and will never work.
“My basic predisposition is that in a situation like this, you talk to everybody,” Blair said, adding that Hamas should first recognize Israel and renounce violence.
The Hebrew University’s Sheafer said the idea of talking to Hamas is a non-starter for Israel but that “Hamas opposed it before Israel did.”
“They are not willing to recognize Israel and that’s it,” he said.