JERUSALEM — As the war in Gaza continues, with Israeli ground troops poised to intensify their actions against Hamas militants, weapons’ stores and rocket-launching sites, diplomatic efforts to end the fighting have gathered pace.
Israeli analysts said that although the Hamas military infrastructure has been dealt a devastating blow, the organization’s fighting force remains largely intact. One of the goals of the Israeli ground operation is to hit the militia’s fighters hard, which could entail tough house-to-house combat.
The militiamen have taken up positions in built-up areas in densely populated towns and refugee camps, and confronting them in those conditions could be very risky for Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.
The possibility of serious escalation, however, brought French President Nicolas Sarkozy and three European foreign ministers to Jerusalem to try to bring the fighting in Gaza to an end. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni indicated Israel’s readiness to end the war, but only if its exit demands were met.
The Israeli dilemma is how to create conditions that guarantee security for southern Israel without granting Hamas a measure of international legitimacy. The Israelis have been warning against a scenario in which a defeated Hamas makes enormous political gains merely by being treated by the international community as a full partner in ceasefire negotiations.
This, they argue, is totally unacceptable: Hamas gained power through a violent coup in June 2007 and is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. The Israelis are therefore seeking a new international “arrangement” that would address all their security concerns, as well as the issue of border crossings to and from Gaza, without Hamas having any say in the negotiating process.
In their contacts with the Americans and Europeans, Israeli leaders have outlined three key elements to be included in the new arrangements: a credible ceasefire to end rocket fire on Israeli civilians, an internationally supervised mechanism to prevent Hamas rearming, and joint European Union, Egyptian and Palestinian Authority supervision at border crossing points.
To deter Hamas from firing more rockets after a ceasefire is achieved, Israel wants to have its right to retaliate written into the ceasefire terms.
Israel’s biggest headache is the possibility of Hamas rebuilding and enhancing its rocket-firing capabilities by smuggling new and longer-range weapons across the border with Egypt.
Israel is demanding that the new arrangements include collapsing all the smuggling tunnels under the Philadelphi route along the Gaza-Egypt border; erecting a physical barrier on the Egyptian side of the border that would make smuggling virtually impossible; deploying an international force in the buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza; and securing a commitment from Egypt to stop the flow of arms into Sinai, from where they find their way to the Gaza border.
Hamas’ main demand has been that Israel allow the opening of all crossing points in and out of Gaza. Israel says it is prepared to do so, on the basis of a 2005 agreement under which the crossings would be supervised jointly by Israel, the Palestinian Authority (not Hamas), Egypt and the European Union. This is also the Egyptian position with regard to the Rafah crossing point from Gaza into Egypt.
One of the difficulties with the uncompromising Israeli position against talking to Hamas is that it complicates chances for the return of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Israeli leaders say they would like to see Shalit return as part of the overall ceasefire arrangement, but it is hard to see how this could be accomplished without a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas.
The Americans and Europeans are split in their approach to the Israeli ceasefire terms. The Americans say a ceasefire should be put in place only when conditions exist for it to be stable and lasting. The Europeans, however, say a ceasefire should go into effect immediately. They say these aims could be secured more easily once a ceasefire is in place.
Egyptians have strong regional and domestic reasons for their opposition to Hamas. They see Iran as their most dangerous regional foe, and Gaza controlled by Hamas as a forward Iranian base on their doorstep. They also fear the ideological connection between Hamas and the seditious opposition Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. And they realize that the border tunnels could support terror and violence in the opposite direction – from Gaza into Egypt.
Israel and Egypt thus have a common interest in weakening Hamas and moderating Iranian influence in Gaza.