The dynamics of Israel's Gazan calm

Fear and suspicion may cause Palestinians to waste an opportunity for unity.

    A relative calm has returned to Gaza but daily raids continue in the West Bank [AFP]

    The truce negotiations between Israel and Hamas, mediated by Egypt, have so far survived the disruption of the temporary calm on the Gaza front.
    But they have further fuelled inter-factional suspicion and rivalry between the Islamic resistance movement and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA).
    The Israeli assassination of activists, from the Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Brigades in the West Bank on Wednesday, has reinforced Palestinian perceptions that Tel Aviv is using the truce negotiations to break up confidence even among allied Palestinian groups.
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    Islamic Jihad's firing of rockets into southern Israel triggered an Israeli raid on the Gaza Strip, putting Hamas's alliance with the group and ability to control the rocket-launching crews to the test.
    The assassinations were also meant to portray Hamas as negotiating for its own political interests at the expense of other groups - a conclusion already reached and promoted by the PA that has been kept away from the talks.
    Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, gave his initial approval for Egypt's mediation efforts, but he has become increasingly weary of these negotiations leading to an Israeli recognition of two separate Palestinian governments - one in the Gaza Strip and the other in the West Bank.
    In an interview with reporters in Jordan, Abbas accused Hamas of reaching a deal with Israel that guarantees Fatah leaders would be the new targets of Israeli assassination attempts.
    According to journalists attending the meeting, Abbas sounded angry, insisting that Hamas was using the truce talks to reach an all-out agreement with Israel, sidelining and even replacing the PA as a negotiating partner.
    Cross-border attacks

    Hamas has denied the accusations but boasted that its cross-border rocket attacks have forced Israel to acknowledge its power and cease raids in Gaza, while Abbas has so far failed to halt Israeli incursions into the West Bank.
    While not claiming responsibility for an attack last week at a right-wing Jewish seminary in Jerusalem that left eight students dead, Hamas officials believe that the shooting was crucial in bringing Israel to truce talks, while Abbas is left looking unable to protect Palestinians in the West Bank.
    Israel appeared to prove exactly that point by escalating its military incursions into several West Bank communities on Wednesday, rounding up wanted Palestinian activists and leaving at least five dead.
    Beneath the Hamas bravado and Abbas's accusations lies a more complex, multi-layered story.
    Each side is afraid of the other reaching a deal with Israel, but are also in constant contact through mediators in order to resume reconciliation talks.
    The paradox is that both Palestinian sides are trying to consolidate their authority in a fragmented land under Israeli occupation, while at the same time acknowledging that the current division is detrimental to the Palestinian people.
    Each side is keeping the reconciliation option open for its own purposes.
    For Abbas, a reconciliation agreement would mean reasserting the PA's responsibility for both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while Hamas is holding out for a reconciliation deal that would involve recognition of its power and an end to Fatah control over Palestinian government institutions.
    The two goals may not be mutually exclusive, but at the moment it is fear and suspicion - further deepened by the truce negotiations that imply Israeli recognition of Hamas's Gaza rule - that is dominating their relationship.
    The "calm understanding" which went into effect on Friday night, following the Jerusalem attack, is supposed to end or be renewed next Friday night, pending the outcome of further mediations.
    Hamas is awaiting answers to "a package deal" that would see them halt the firing of all rockets across the border in return for an end to all Israeli military operations, the lifting of the siege on Gaza and opening the Rafah and other crossings.
    PA officials fear that there is more to the package deal than Hamas says - they suspect that Hamas will accept a unilateral Israeli reopening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt without its own involvement in supervising the border point.
    Abbas does not expect Israel to accept a ceasefire without the involvement of the PA, but suspects that this is what Hamas is trying to secure.

    Hamas officials have reiterated that Abbas remains the legitimate president of the Palestinian people but that has not allayed suspicions that the group - which wrestled power from the Fatah-led PA security in Gaza last June - is engaged in undermining his authority.
    Israel ambiguous

    Meanwhile, Israel remains ambiguous. It publicly refuses to talk to Hamas, but has actually engaged in indirect negotiations with the group, leaving Abbas guessing in uncomfortable suspense.

    One Hamas official calls the current calm "a worrier's break".
    Hamas is pondering its political and military options and how it could use a truce with Israel to consolidate its new, but potentially temporary, political strength and to reorganise its fighters in case of a renewed Israeli onslaught.
    Israel has so far managed to use the calm period to create more suspicion between Fatah and Hamas by keeping each side guessing about its military and political plans, thus benefiting from the two sides' lack of direct communications.
    A recent article by Robert O'Malley of the International Crisis Group and Hussein Agha, a former adviser to the PA, analysed how Israel, Hamas and the PA have become entangled in a perpetual state of mutual fear.
    The writers argued that Israel is afraid of a Hamas-PA/Fatah agreement, while the PA is afraid of a Hamas-Israel agreement and Hamas is afraid of a PA/Fatah–Israeli agreement.

    They concluded that the three sides should rest assured as there is little or no chance that any two sides will reach an agreement.
    However, it does not take a real agreement between either Palestinian party and Israel to perpetuate the fears of the two rival factions.
    Hamas is suspicious of any new security arrangements with Israel or the US to crush the group.
    For its part, the PA is afraid of both the Iranian backing for Hamas and of the group reaching a security arrangement with Israel that would formalise the political division between Gaza and the West Bank.
    This leaves Israel free to play both sides as Hamas await answers for the truce negotiations and the PA waits for peace talks to resume.
    West Bank reaction

    The heightened state of nervousness was clear in how the two sides reacted to the Israeli incursions into the West Bank.
    When talking to a Hamas official, a journalist is told the incursions are a testimony both to the PA's complicity in the raids, as well as the government's weakness, if not near collapse.
    A Fatah-aligned PA official, however, explains it as an indication that both Hamas and Israel are closing in on a deal.
    The fact that Israel's main goal is to pressure Palestinian leaders to stop all forms of resistance in their areas without addressing Palestinian national rights seems conveniently and shortsightedly forgotten.

    A week of calm on the Gaza front is also becoming a wasted opportunity to build on a renewed sense of popular Palestinian unity, fostered by a week which has seen one of the fiercest Israeli onslaughts against the besieged Gazan people.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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