An Egyptian-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas has hit a snag with Israel’s surprise demand that Hamas first release the soldier it captured nearly three years ago, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Israeli analysts say the reason Israel hit the brakes on a cease-fire deal was this month’s Israeli election in which Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Labor Party suffered a resounding defeat and a right-leaning Knesset was elected. Barak had been the major proponent of the cease-fire, but his party came in fourth. The three parties that finished ahead of his – Kadima, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu – are against a cease-fire and call for Hamas’ destruction.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are reportedly frustrated with obstacles Israel is placing on the delivery of humanitarian aid to
the Gaza Strip. The U.S., European Union and the United Nations are said to be demanding that at least 500 trucks carrying aid be allowed into the Gaza Strip daily and that Israel is reportedly permitting fewer than 200.
George Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy to the Middle East, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are reportedly preparing to voice their concerns in coming days. Mitchell is scheduled to arrive in Israel late this week. Clinton is coming next week in connection with a donors conference in Egypt dealing with the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip following Israel’s 23-day military offensive aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire into Israel. She is reportedly planning to announce that the U.S. will contribute $900 million to the rebuilding effort.
But some analysts are questioning the conference’s timing because Hamas is still firing rockets into Israel — at least 65 since the Israeli military offensive ended Jan. 18 — and rebuilding Gaza now might send the wrong signal to Hamas.
“It tells the Palestinians that their leadership can make grave, deadly mistakes, and nevertheless gullible Westerners will bail them out,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “It signals to Hamas that it can continue shooting at Israel; for if Israel repeats its military action, merciful Westerners again will repair the damage.”
“The campaign to reconstruct Gaza is strategic folly,” Inbar continued in a paper his center published. “It is also unlikely to be effective, and under the current circumstances, it is also immoral.”
The delay in working out a cease-fire with Hamas can be linked in part to the will of Israeli voters, according to Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
“Barak’s position has been weakened a great deal by the election,” he explained. “He had more influence in the cabinet when the fighting was taking place in Gaza. But after the election, he became a minor player and has had no weight at the table.”
Another reason for Israel’s about-face is that Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whose party won just one less seat than the Kadima Party, “weighed in strongly against” the cease-fire as originally proposed. And Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni also made it clear that she was “not willing to pay the ransom demanded,” Steinberg said.
“None of them are interested in giving Hamas a second chance,” he stressed.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has said Hamas has the best chance of a deal while he is still in office, has also said that Israel is “not willing to play this game and give up everything just so he can get Shalit out on his watch.”
David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute, said Hamas had been demanding that “Israel release 1,350 Palestinian prisoners for one person [Shalit]. That would enable Hamas to present itself as being the sky high” victor over Israel.
“This would seriously diminish [the stature] of the Palestinian Authority,” which Hamas forced out of Gaza in a bloody coup in June 2007, he said.
In addition, Makovsky noted, it would give Hamas the incentive to kidnap other Israeli soldiers. Shalit was abducted during a cross-border raid in June 2006.
Makovsky lamented that there is no debate on this issue in Israel because those opposed to the cease-fire “are all afraid of the media and don’t want to be seen as not being ready to release Shalit.”
“It’s a fairytale to have the public believe that this is a question of whether Israel wants Shalit out or not when the real question is the price,” he said. “What prisoners would be released, what would it mean for the Palestinian Authority, is Israel willing to see Hamas become more entrenched?”
A senior Hamas official was quoted by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Wednesday as blaming the Palestinian Authority for aborting the cease-fire agreement out of fear that it would weaken its own position. He claimed that Israel had accepted all of Hamas’ conditions, which included the release of convicted terrorists serving lengthy sentences.
But talks for Shalit’s release continued in Cairo this week as Olmert vowed Tuesday to make every effort to “bring him back alive and healthy.”
An Israeli official was quoted as saying Israel wanted to renegotiate with Hamas over the prisoners to be released.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Asaf Shariv, put that figure at 900 — 400 to be released to Hamas and another 500 later to the Palestinian Authority to blunt any Hamas boasting about its achievement.
In return for the cease-fire, Hamas wants Israel to reopen its border crossings to the Gaza Strip. But Shariv said that won’t happen unless Shalit is first released. And before that, he said, Israel would release 400 prisoners to Hamas.