Israel’s decision Wednesday to continue targeted attacks in the Gaza Strip rather than to recapture the area from Hamas leaves open the possibility of a cease-fire that would at least temporarily end repeated Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli communities.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut off all contact with Israel earlier in the week to protest Israel’s stepped-up attacks on Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, and insisted that a cease-fire was a prerequisite to renewed negotiations. After some arm-twisting by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, Abbas agreed to resume talks.
But the idea of a cease-fire with Hamas — one that Abbas said he himself would seek to arrange — was scoffed at by some Israelis.
“Hamas has said it would agree to a cease-fire at least 20 times, but they only use the time to bring in more weapons and money” before resuming their attacks, said Alon Davidi, chairman of the Sderot Security Council.
Davidi, who was here at the end of a three-week North American visit to raise funds and awareness about Sderot’s plight as the constant target of Palestinian rocket fire, said he believed that only Israel’s military reoccupation of Gaza would end the hostilities.
“You can’t negotiate with evil,” he insisted. “You need to destroy it. … A cease-fire is the easy way out, but it is not the answer. You need to prepare the army to make war on them.”
Davidi, 34 and the father of five, said that about 21,000 people continue to live in Sderot and that about 4,000 others have left. In the last seven years, he said, 7,000 Palestinian rockets have been fired from Gaza into Sderot. Just last week, a student at the Sapir Academic College in Sderot was killed by one of those rockets.
Avi Besser, a psychology professor at the college, said the incessant rocket attacks are taking their toll on residents.
“There is a high level of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said in an interview at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Eilat, where he is also an instructor.
He said also that children are expressing aberrant behavior, including “aggression, fear, being more dependent on their parents, asking to sleep with their parents, crying a lot and bed wedding.”
“People are using their coping mechanisms, but there will be a time when it will break,” Besser warned. “You can repress just so long. The psychological system needs rest. We might see an increase in heart attacks, cardiovascular problems and maybe domestic violence.”
On the same day the Israeli student was killed, the Israeli Air Force attacked two vehicles in Gaza, killing five Hamas members, three of whom were described as “senior operatives.”
Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry’s Diplomatic-Security Bureau, told Israel television that Hamas responded with a barrage of rockets. Most were aimed at Sderot and its environs, but at least four Iranian-made Grad missiles were fired at Ashkelon, a sea-side city of at least 110,000 residents that lies 10 miles away.
Israel responded with its own stepped-up attacks, including a two-day ground offensive, that left 107 Palestinians dead and 250 injured. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the operation.
About 25 Israeli civilians were hurt in the rocket attacks.
Gilad said Israel wanted to make plain that it would not be deterred from targeting terrorists out fear of rocket and missile barrages.
Although polls show that the Israeli public supports direct talks with Hamas, the U.S. and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have ruled it out. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who favors talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Monday that he understands Israel’s position.
“You can’t negotiate with somebody who does not recognize the right of a country to exist, so I understand why Israel doesn’t meet with Hamas,” he said.
His opponent, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, has also taken a strong stance against Hamas. Although European and United Nations leaders this week criticized Israel for what was termed its disproportionate response to Hamas rocket fire, Clinton issued a statement in which she condemned Hamas and insisted that “Israel has the right to defend its citizens.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the newly crowned Republican presidential nominee, expressed a similar hard-line view last month when asked by The Jewish Week if he believed Egypt should develop economic ties with Hamas.
“I would not encourage any ties with any terrorist organization under any circumstances,” he said.
But Abbas offered this week to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas.
David Kimche, a former deputy chief of the Mossad and a member of the Israel Policy Forum’s advisory council, welcomed the move during an IPF conference call.
“If we are serious about [a Palestinian peace agreement], we have to reach some sort of deal with Hamas,” he said. “Hamas is desperate to have a cease-fire. The people in Gaza are hemmed in and can’t export goods, and people there are saying they don’t have a normal life. Hamas would like to get out of that predicament.”
A cease-fire, Kimche said, “would mean the end of rocket attacks and [the knowledge] that Hamas was not going to try to sabotage the talks.” And once an agreement is reached, it would be presented to the Palestinian people for ratification.
“Hamas has said it would honor a referendum,” Kimche said. “And if we do move forward on the peace process, it would strengthen [Abbas’] Fatah and weaken Hamas.”
Once a cease-fire is in place, Kimche said international forces should take up positions in the Gaza Strip to enforce it. He said he knows of Israel’s concern that such a force would hinder any Israeli military action, but he said Israel accepted such a force along its border with Lebanon.
Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and editor of bitterlemons.org, a Web site that presents Israeli and Palestinian views, said that the Gaza incursion suggests the government is strategically adrift.
“The offensive was a middle ground between two unpalatable clear-cut strategic choices: reoccupying Gaza or opening negotiations with Hamas,” he said. “Clearly Olmert and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak are very hesitant about a major military operation because they don’t have a good strategy.”
He said he would like to see a peace arrangement with Abbas achieved so that the rest of the Arab world would normalize relations with Israel, as promised in the Arab peace initiative.
But Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University, suggested that there is no magic bullet on the horizon.
“There is no answer,” he said flatly.
In an interview during a visit here, Steinberg rejected the idea of a cease-fire with Hamas.
“It was just a few months ago that Hamas was throwing Fatah people off roofs in Gaza,” he recalled.
A cease-fire now would simply give Hamas a chance to rebuild its arsenal, Steinberg insisted.
“It’s hard to see how Israel’s interests would be met by a temporary cease-fire,” he said, adding that Abbas would have little success in achieving a cease-fire because “he has no influence.”
Some analysts believe Hamas’s military capabilities were weakened by the Israeli offensive and that, short of launching a major ground offensive, Israel must be content with the way things are now. But Steinberg said he has no doubt that Hamas will use this time to “reposition themselves” for the next round of fighting. And the only way that can be avoided is if the leadership of Hamas concludes that it would not serve their interests.
“But that’s all just wishful thinking,” he said. “And policy can’t be based on hope. It has to be based on facts on the ground.”
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.