An Egyptian-brokered, six-month truce between Israel and Hamas took hold this morning. Both sides have voiced their misgivings about the potential for the ceasefire to last. Indeed, just before the calm took hold, 30 rockets were fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip into Israel. Looking forward, there are numerous reasons to believe that this ceasefire will backfire on Israel, or even weaken its advantage over Hamas.
The Jerusalem Post notes that previous declarations of tahdiyeh (Arabic for “period of calm”) cast doubt on “the likelihood of this latest truce holding at all.” In February 2005, a similar ceasefire was announced, lasting until June 2006. “But the interim was fraught with rocket attacks on Israeli territory.” At one point, “dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, killing a 22 year-old woman.”
But, even if the calm lasts to term, one key question lingers: how can it strengthen Israel’s long-term strategic position?
Celebrated historian Michael Oren notes that the ceasefire is providing Hamas with an opportunity to “regroup and rearm.” As far back as 2002, Seth Wikas of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted that throughout the Oslo years (1993-2000), Hamas offered nine ceasefires to Israel. In many cases, they followed periods of confrontation with the Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ political rival. Wikas notes, in fact, that all Hamas ceasefire offers have come at a time when “Hamas needed a ‘breather’ – a moment to step back and regroup after an organizationally exhausting confrontation with a more powerful foe (Israel or the PA).”
In this case, the siege of Gaza has undoubtedly been a drain on Hamas. By granting a ceasefire, Israel is providing Hamas this much-needed “breather,” during which Iran can help train additional fighters and provide Hamas with more advanced weapons in preparation for the next round of conflict with Israel.
The tahdiyeh provides Hamas with other perks, too. Oren observes that the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire “yields Hamas greater benefits than it might have obtained in direct negotiations. In exchange for giving its word to halt rocket attacks and weapons smuggling, Hamas receives the right to monitor the main border crossings into Gaza and to enforce a truce in the West Bank, where Fatah retains formal control.”
Thus, the Palestinian Press is proudly touting the ceasefire as a Hamas victory over the “Zionist enemy.” Isam Shawar in the Palestinian newspaper Filastin notes that, “Hamas proved that it is impossible to destroy or even weaken… In the end, Israel found that a truce with Hamas is the best and least damaging solution.” Ibrahim Ibrash in the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam further states that by accepting the truce, “Israel accepts coexistence not with a national unity government of which Hamas is a part, but with a Hamas government and authority exclusively.”
As Jonathan Dahoah Halevy explains, the agreement is an “important achievement for Hamas. Hamas will gain the recognition it wants as the legitimate ruler of the Gaza Strip. Despite the fact that the Israeli government has defined Hamas-ruled Gaza as a hostile entity, Israel agreed to the continuation of trade with it, and even recognized the hostile entity’s authority to operate the Rafah crossing. Hamas regards that as immensely important and wants to exploit it as a lever to open the door to official relations with Europe, and to have itself removed from the various lists of terrorist organizations.”
Among the other disconcerting results of the agreement was the announcement by Robert Serry, the U.N.’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, that the truce could create conditions for the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in the Gaza Strip. The U.N., of course, has a sub-dismal record of protecting Israel, from allowing five Arab nations to invade the Jewish state in 1948 to watching Hizbullah launch more than 10,000 rockets into Israel in 2006.
It must also be noted that the so-called “armed wing” of Hamas, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, noted on their English-language website that they viewed the ceasefire as a means “to promote the option of resistance.” A brief survey of the rest of the site reveals that the group is eager to renew its war with Israel.
This comes as no surprise. As Wikas notes, throughout Hamas’ string of ceasefires in the 1990s, its leaders “continued to support the goals of the original Hamas charter, i.e., the creation, through religiously sanctioned violence, of an Islamic state” in place of Israel.
Thus, Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a Tel Aviv University think tank, notes that the truce “will just be a postponement of the unavoidable clash which might take place under even worse conditions, in which Hamas will have more sophisticated weapons and be better trained.”
Prime Minister Olmert recently stated that the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit was one of the key conditions for truce. Indeed, many Israelis believe that recovering Shalit would outweigh all other risks associated with the tahdiyeh. Yet his release was never stipulated, and the Hamas website now has a prominently-positioned posting entitled “Truce Without Shalit.” Should this kidnapped soldier not be recovered – and perhaps even if he is – the dangers of the tahdiyeh appear to vastly outweigh the benefits.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is Director of Policy for the Jewish Policy Center, editor of inFOCUS Quarterly, and author of the forthcoming Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave, November 2008).