Sunday, January 25, 2009

"I Hate the Name Hamas"

More and more reports are appearing in the international press about dissatisfaction with Hamas in Gaza, though these are balanced by quotations from the official Hamas organs. Thus, in The Guardian, we first read about these thoughts from a Hamas minister:

At the al-Filisteen mosque in the Rimal area of Gaza City on Friday, the imam was preaching the necessity of brotherhood and unity. But on the steps after prayers, Hamas's economics minister explained what the conditions for Palestinian unity involved. Senior Hamas officials are demanding that the conditions for reconciliation should include an end to negotiations with Israel and to the peace process, a unity agreement under a banner of "resistance", and continued Hamas control of Gaza.

"Everyone recognises the need for reconciliation among Palestinians," said Abu Rushdi Zaza. "It will happen immediately if the Palestine Liberation Organisation [dominated by Fatah] can be rebuilt. But it must be understood that Hamas is the government. If international institutions want to do rebuilding projects in Gaza, then that is fine - but they must do it under our supervision.

The paper also quotes at length a pro-Hamas parliamentarian from the West Bank:

Mahmoud Musleh, a Palestinian legislative council member aligned with Hamas, added: "The organisation that should be talking for the Palestinian people is the PLO. But it has not been speaking. If it does not rehabilitate itself, there will be dramatic changes. At present it does not represent the Palestinian people. They can longer make decisions. They do not own the power."

He continued: "There is a new balance of power emerging. For the first time, through the steadfastness of the resistance in Gaza, we have seen Israel's project halted."

And then, in the last paragraph we encounter a passage that is starting to become a cliche of sorts in the Western press. An ordinary Gazan, after checking that no one is listening, pours out his true feelings about Hamas:

And if one place is the symbol of the destruction wreaked in Gaza, it is the demolished houses of the Samouni family in Zeitoun, a place where the stink of death still seeps from out of the rubble.

A member of the family, who lost his father and his son, asks not to be identified for fear of being beaten by Hamas - as others were during the war - for criticising it. "No one from Hamas has come to offer us help. None of the leaders has been here. We were farmers, not fighters with a militant faction.

He pulls out a crumpled photograph showing a wedding scene. "This was my father. This, my son. After what happened to us here, I hate the name Hamas."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fallout from the Gaza War

Hamas agrees to allow Fatah forces to patrol Rafah crossing (Ha'aretz):
The London-based Asharq al-Awsat reported Saturday that Hamas has suggested representatives of the Palestinian Authority be stationed at the Rafah crossing, but that they be residents of Gaza, not the West Bank. 

Also on Saturday, Hamas officials laid out some of their conditions for a continuation of the Gaza truce and for the release of captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. 

Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha told Asharq Al-Awsat that his group wants European Union and Turkish troops to patrol Gaza's border crossings with Israel
I'm sure the heads of Hamas made these suggestions on their own initiative.

Assad  congratulates Hamas on 'victory' over IDF in Gaza (Ha'aretz)
According to the article, Assad told Meshal, currently in exile in Damascus, that the Palestinian peoples' response to Israel Defense Forces operation "Cast Lead" was evidence of their "commitment to their inalienable rights to their land and homes, and of their deep faith in their ultimate victory over occupation and aggression." 
More cheap words from Assad.  
The delegation reportedly told Syrian officials that Syria is the first stop in a tour of countries in the Middle East in order to "express their gratitude to them for standing by the Palestinian people during the aggression."
Mubarak must be ecstatic.

Egyptian official: Israel achieved all of its military goals in Gaza (Ha'aretz)
An Egyptian official has said that Israel achieved all of its military objectives during "Operation Cast Lead" in the Gaza Strip, having exacted serious blows to Hamas and it's infrastructure, according to an article published in the Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat on Saturday. 
The official is quoted in the article as saying that senior Hamas leaders are still in hiding out of fear of Israel Defense Forces strikes, and that Israel is not interested in pursuing a new calm or Tahadiyeh with the militant group. 
Egypt is not letting Hamas forget this.

ANALYSIS / The IDF model that failed in Lebanon succeeded  in Gaza (Amos Harel, Ha'aretz)

The Egyptian daily Al-Ahram reported this week that the head of Hamas' political bureau in Damascus, Khaled Meshal, expressed disappointment at the Arab reaction to the operation during a closed session of the Arab summit in Qatar. Not only did Hamas remain almost alone in the campaign against Israel, it also suffered a painful blow in the military confrontation. The best proof of this was its agreement to an unconditional cease-fire while IDF troops were still in the Gaza Strip. Al-Ahram reports that Meshal admitted that he had not expected the Israeli reaction to be so severe and sustained - the same sentiment that was expressed by Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon two and half years ago. 

Outwardly, Hamas broadcast a different message. Military Intelligence tends to give Hamas high grades for the credibility of its announcements in ordinary times. But since the start of the ground operation, Hamas' fabrications have gone off the charts. One of the organization's spokesmen claimed this week that Hamas had expelled the IDF from the Gaza Strip. The spokesman of the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, admitted to losing only 48 of its men in the fighting. And how many Israeli soldiers were killed? Forty-nine, according to Hamas (in reality, 10 soldiers were killed). Conversations with residents of Ramallah and East Jerusalem indicate that from their point of view, Hamas won. They claim that Hamas withstood Israeli military pressure and that the IDF struck only civilians in the Gaza Strip. Asked why they think Hamas stopped firing rockets, they explain that it was a good-will gesture to Barack Obama on the occasion of his inauguration.

More deadly stupidity.

Gaza agreement eludes Arab leaders (Al Jazeera)

Arab leaders have pledged $2bn to help reconstruct the Gaza Strip after a three week Israeli offensive that devastated the territory's infrastructure, left 1,300 Palestinians dead, and thousands more displaced.

But there have been disagreements over how the aid will find its way into Gaza, with countries including Saudi Arabia concerned about giving funds directly to Hamas, which currently administers the Gaza Strip.

Rifts over Israel

"They [the Arab leaders] decided to confine themselves in a general statement to postpone differences," Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra reported from Kuwait.

"Saudis and Egyptians are very sceptical of [giving money to] Hamas for one reason," he said.

It will be interesting to see who wins this battle. Qatar's position has been dynamic over the past two years. Once in a while they support the Saudi line and at other times they subtly undermine their bigger neighbor. This time, Qatar has made no bones about its position. The emirate's stance during the Gaza War made it possible to speak of a Syrian-Qatari axis in support of Hamas and aligned with Iran. So far, Qatar has confined its war to one of words, or, more precisely, images - through its widely-watched al Jazeera outlet. The Egyptians and the Saudis must be fuming, but it remains to be seen whether the Arab masses will stay riled up long enough to present a serious threat to the security apparatuses of these regimes. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Italian Daily Quotes Gazan Doctor: Casualty Numbers Inflated

Corriere della Sera reported today that Palestinian civilians are accusing Hamas of having prevented civilians from fleeing areas under attack. The article also quote a Gazan physician who argues that the casualty numbers are inflated and that many more of the dead were likely Hamas fighters than has been admitted. Here is the relevant quotation from the Italian paper; read Ha'aretz for an English summary.

Chi racconta una versione diversa dalla narrativa imposta dalla «muhamawa» (la resistenza) è automaticamente un «amil», un collaborazionista e rischia la vita. Aiuta però il recente scontro fratricida tra Hamas e Olp. Se Israele o l’Egitto avessero permesso ai giornalisti stranieri di entrare subito sarebbe stato più facile. Quelli locali sono spesso minacciati da Hamas. «Non è un fatto nuovo, in Medio Oriente tra le società arabe manca la tradizione culturale dei diritti umani. Avveniva sotto il regime di Arafat che la stampa venisse perseguitata e censurata. Con Hamas è anche peggio», sostiene Eyad Sarraj, noto psichiatra di Gaza city. E c’è un altro dato che sta emergendo sempre più evidente visitando cliniche, ospedali e le famiglie delle vittime del fuoco israeliano. In verità il loro numero appare molto più basso dei quasi 1.300 morti, oltre a circa 5.000 feriti, riportati dagli uomini di Hamas e ripetuti da ufficiali Onu e della Croce Rossa locale. «I morti potrebbero essere non più di 500 o 600. Per lo più ragazzi tra i 17 e 23 anni reclutati tra le fila di Hamas che li ha mandati letteralmente al massacro», ci dice un medico dell’ospedale Shifah che non vuole assolutamente essere citato, è a rischio la sua vita. Un dato però confermato anche dai giornalisti locali: «Lo abbiamo già segnalato ai capi di Hamas. Perché insistono nel gonfiare le cifre delle vittime? Strano tra l’altro che le organizzazioni non governative, anche occidentali, le riportino senza verifica. Alla fine la verità potrebbe venire a galla. E potrebbe essere come a Jenin nel 2002. Inizialmente si parlò di 1.500 morti. Poi venne fuori che erano solo 54, di cui almeno 45 guerriglieri caduti combattendo».

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

High Court Strikes Down Central Elections Committee Decision

As predicted, the High Court today struck down the Central Elections Committee's ban on two Arab parties. See our previous posts for background and initial fallout.

The High Court of Justice on Wednesday revoked a government decision to exclude Israeli-Arab parties from contesting in the national elections next month.

The court issued its decision in response to a petition submitted by Arab politicians against the ban. A spokesman for the Courts Administration said judges overturned the ban in an unanimous vote Wednesday (Ha'aretz). 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Great interactive tool on the members of the incoming administration.


Random Things No One Will Remember

The video is not currently up unfortunately:
Footage of a presenter on the Arabic language television station Al-Arabiyaapparently confirms that Hamas fired at least one rocket from close to a building used by journalists during the 22-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

The Israel Defense Forces shelled the building, drawing international condemnation, and television networks with offices in the building denied that rockets had been launched from anywhere nearby. 

But the recording, filmed by an Israeli and released Tuesday by Israel's Foreign Ministry, shows Al-Arabiya presenter Hanan Al-Masri saying that a Grad rocket had been fired from a location near the studios at Al-Shuruk tower in Gaza City. Al-Masri did not realize that she had been caught on camera (Ha'aretz).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Consortium Claims Biggest Natural Gas Discovery in Israel's History

Let's see if this holds up.

Israel`s largest-ever reserve of natural gas discovered off Haifa coast
Isramco announced Sunday that "extremely significant" reserves of natural gas have been discovered at its Tamar 1 offshore drill site 90 kilometers west of Haifa
Noble Energy Announces Significant Natural Gas Discovery at Tamar Well Offshore Israel
Noble Energy operates the well with a 36 percent working interest. Other interest owners in the well are Isramco Negev 2 with 28.75 percent, Delek Drilling with 15.625 percent, Avner Oil Exploration with 15.625 percent and Dor Gas Exploration with the remaining four percent.
התגלית  הגדולה מעולם: פי 3 מ"ים תטיס" ובערך כלכלי של 15 מיליארד ד'; תשובה: "נשלם את כל האג"חים

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Rice-Olmert Spat and a Unilateral Cease Fire

The bizarre diplomatic spat sparked by Olmert's annoucement that he had intervened with Bush personally to overrule Rice should not be blown out of proportion, but it reveals something about the shortcomings of both of these lame-duck administrations (in Jerusalem and D.C.):
"In Jerusalem, however, officials went to sleep thinking the Americans had only agreed to support a 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire. At 1 A.M., final confirmation came from New York: The U.S. had promised that no cease-fire resolution would be brought to a vote any time soon. An hour and a half later, however, it became clear that not only was the Security Council due to vote on a cease-fire resolution at any minute, but Rice had ordered America's UN ambassador to support it. Olmert promptly telephoned U.S. President George Bush to complain about Rice's behavior and demand that he restrain her. What Bush said to Rice remains unknown. What is known, however, is that the U.S. suddenly changed its vote from "yes" to "abstain." 

The whole story would have ended well had Olmert behaved like a responsible adult and restrained his own impulses. Even his close associates admit that he would have done better to skip the public boasting about how he persuaded Bush to overrule Rice. Quite aside from the fact that this embarrassed the U.S. administration, Olmert's associates understand all too well that this story merely provides fresh ammunition to those who claim the Jews are the ones who really control America. " (Ha'aretz)
If this is correct, the Secretary of State was responsible for a diplomatic screw-up that could have cost Israel dearly, and in fact hurt its position. What matters here is not the substance of the particular resolutions in question but the fact that State had signalled to Israel that there was nothing to worry about. I cannot understand Ha'aretz's concession here to the "Zionist lobby" antisemites. This has nothing to do with Jews "controlling America, but with proper diplomatic coordination among allies.

Meanwhile, the Israeli cabinet is set to vote on a unilateral cease fire. With Hamas having rebuffed the Israeli position, and the Damascus wing of the organization, publicly supported by the presidents of Iran and Syria, continuing to adhere to a totally rejectionist line, I am having trouble making sense of this development. At the moment, Israeli troops are deep inside Gaza. Israel should not withdraw troops without an agreement involving the Palestinians. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hamas Fighters Flee Positions in Gaza City

From Ha'aretz:
Said Sayyam and Salah Abu Shreich, two senior Hamas figures, were killed in an air strike in Jabaliya. The home of another Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, is surrounded. Infantry, armor and special forces are operating in the center of the city, very close to the Hamas "security quarter" southwest of the city, where most of the command and control centers of the group are situated. 

Even in the center of the city, Hamas gunmen are opting to avoid direct encounters with the IDF. In most cases they are choosing to escape along with thousands of civilians. The Hamas announcement in Cairo two days ago began the countdown toward a cease-fire. 

The army sensed Hamas' weakness when units left their defensive positions in the Zeytun neighborhood. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi approved the assault and forces reached the center of the city through the gap. On the way, the IDF killed most of the members of a unit comprising militants trained by Iran. 

The latest move has is risks. The IDF is constantly concerned that a single mistake may lead to mass killing of Palestinian civilians, or a surprise attack by Hamas that may affect public opinion in Israel. 

Hamas-Gaza may try for one more dramatic round, but as of now, it is close to collapse. This does not mean the end of Hamas, but in combination with an effective diplomatic settlement, it implies a significant improvement in Israel's position. The civilian population of Gaza will remember Israel's cruel campaign; however, the Palestinians will also remember the sight of Hamas fighters fleeing before the advancing Israeli forces. Hamas has indubitably been weakened, and in the long term, its shortcomings in this war will make the organization more hesitant about launching attacks on Israel.

As Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff argue, it would be best for Israel to leave a diminished Hamas in power rather than destroying all central authority in Gaza. The key to a post-war settlement will be to involve the Egyptians in a reconstruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza. B

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hamas's Offer Falls Short

Egyptian FM Ahmed Abu El Gheit (Photo: NATO)

Hamas's press conference did not yield a major breakthrough for Israel. Although Hamas seems to have reversed its earlier opposition to a cease fire, its public statements appear designed to dispel the sense that it is conceding anything. Furthermore, Hamas's various branches are sending out contradictory messages, as usual. It might be best to ignore what they have to say though, and to focus on the messages being sent out by Egypt and by Hamas-Gaza.

According to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Hamas has agreed to the Egyptian version of the cease fire, which calls for an immediate end to the "aggression against Gaza," an opening of the crossings, and the withdrawal of the [Israeli] troops from the Strip. The Hamas people ("our brothers in Hamas") have conveyed their agreement to the Egyptians, who will in turn pass it on to the Israelis (Ha'aretz):

שר החוץ המצרי, אחמד אבו אל-ריט אמר הערב, כי החמאס הסכימה לנוסחה המצרית להפסקה מיידית של התוקפנות על עזה, פתיחת המעברים ונסיגת הכוחות בפנים הרצועה. לדבריו, נציגי החמאס הודיעו לאנשי המודיעין המצרי על עמדתם ובכוונת מצרים להעביר לישראל את מה שהושג בדיונים עם האחים מהחמאס. 

These kinds of terms again seem unacceptable to me. Of course, there is a chance that the goal here is to allow Hamas to save face in public. The problem is that Hamas itself seems to think the cease fire makes too many concessions to Israel. Muhamad Nasr, a member of the political wing of Gaza, who took part in the negotiations with Egypt, disagreed with the announcement that Hamas had agreed to the Egyptian initiative. He elaborated that Hamas still has problems with aspects of the agreement:

מוחמד נאסר חבר הלשכה המדינית של החמאס שהיה שותף לשיחות הסתייג מההודעה לפיה היוזמה המצרית מקובלת על החמאס. לדבריו, ההיענות של החמאס למאמצי המצרים, אין משמעותם כי החמאס הסכים ליוזמה המצרית. יש עדיין סוגיות במחלוקת ואנחנו עדיין דוחפים את הנושא.

One positive note is that, at least according to Al-Arabiya, Hamas has agreed to the deployment of Palestinian Authority police officers to guard the Rafah border crossing, together with European monitors. Such an agreement represents a blow to Hamas, which had kicked the PA out of Gaza earlier. It would also amount to a victory for Egypt and for the other powers supporting Abu Mazen. For Israel, on the other hand, this is not a real victory. Assuming that the PA officers manage to stay in control of the crossing, they will be hard-pressed to do Israel's bidding for it. They do not represent a solution of the arms smuggling problem. And what will happen when the PA and Hamas "reconcile"?

All in all, the agreement looks good for Egypt and the PA. It was interesting to read the Hamas delegation's statement that they had considered only the Egyptian initiative. Mubarak must be pleased that his message to Hamas has hit home: we are your only salvation.

For Israel, on the other hand, Hamas's position is wholly unsatisfactory. Obviously, Israel cannot agree to a cease fire under these terms. Fortunately, Israel has some time to formulate its own conditions and to back them up with the threat of "stage 3," even if opposition to the full-scale deployment of ground forces in Gaza is growing in the military and government.

In other news, according to the IDF, Palestinians fired a phosphorus bomb at Israel yesterday. Human rights organizations have previously accused Israel of using white phosphorus in civilian areas, which, many argue, is illegal under the Geneva Conventions. The Israeli military argues that it employs phosphorus mainly for smoke screens and that its use of the chemical does not violate the conventions. Rights groups have also accused the U.S. of having used the weapon against insurgents in Iraq.

Assad's Hyped BBC Interview - Hamas Agreement to Cease Fire Imminent Nonetheless?

According to reports in the Israeli media, Hamas is close to agreeing to a cease fire that might meet some of Israel's conditions. A statement from the organization is expected at 7:30 pm local time tonight (1:30 pm EST). Meanwhile, Israeli operations appear to be continuing along the lines of the past two days. Air strikes are ongoing, especially in southern Gaza, while on the ground, Israeli units are staying mobile. They are encountering sporadic fire from snipers and small units armed with RPGs and the like, but no systematic ambushes. The military and political echelons are split on whether to expand the operation.

On a related note, Ynet is heralding an  interview given by Syrian President on BBC, in which he allegedly called on Israel to stop its operation but also called for an end to the rocket firing.  If this were true, it would have  to be counted not only as an important achievement for Israel but as an indicator that the rumors about an imminent cease fire announcement by Hamas have credibility. According to Ynet, Assad even addressed the arms smuggling into Gaza and voiced his opposition to it, though he did not make concrete commitments. 

But here is my transcript of the BBC interview. It seems to me that Assad, although endorsing a cease fire along the lines of Security Council resolution 1860 (see full text, summary of debate), is sticking to the old Hamas line and setting the kinds of preconditions for a truce that the organization demanded before operation Cast Lead.  Maybe someone else can enlighten me. I don't see him explicitly calling for an end to the rockets or to arms smuggling. The UN resolution does NOT call on Hamas to end rocket fire into Israel. 

I had to laugh at several points in the interview, most notably when Assad seemed to imply that there had been no Hamas rockets fired at Israel during the truce, and when he claimed that "We don't push anyone; we make dialogue." 

BBC: The Israelis say that the sort of cease fire they want is one where there are no more rockets onto their territory and where the border with Egypt is controlled so there's no arms smuggling across it. Would you accept that?

Assad: Stop sending ... launching rockets means stop assassinating Palestinians by your helicopters and airplanes. So you cannot look at one side and ignore the other side. About smuggling the arms, it is another issue that is part of the bigger solution. Syria is not involved in this issue because we don't have [a] border with Gaza.

BBC: But do you think that should be part of any cease fire?

Assad: Yes, of course. We will support [a] cease fire. We've been working with [pause] many countries, including the French, for the cease fire. 

BBC: Do you support resolution 1860?

Assad: In principle we support most of it, but in the end it is ambiguous. It doesn't have any executive plan, how to implement it, that's the question.

BBC: What about the Hamas rockets into Israel? That's been going on for some time. The Israelis say that any country would respond in the way that they've responded. Do you think that's a fair point? 

Assad: No, because there was truce for 6 months, and during that truce, no one of the Israelis was killed, while 38-40 Palestinians were assassinated publicly by the Israelis. So how could Hamas launch rockets and the Palestinians died? This is not logical.

BBC: But what if someone was firing rockets into Syria? You would have to respond.

Assad: Yah, but it's not only simply rockets. What if you have embargo? Embargo is a war. When the people are going to die and they have to choose between dying slowly and dying fast, they will choose dying fast.

BBC: Syria offers a base to the exiled political leader of Hamas, Khaled Mish'al ... Are you pushing him to accept a cease fire?

Assad: We don't push anyone; we make dialogue. And they accepted the cease fire, they support the cease fire. When you say cease fire, you don't want it to be just for a few days. You want it to be sustainable. Sustainable means you have certain requirements which should be available for cease fire.

BBC: What, for you, is the most important point about sustaining a cease fire then? 

Assad: Israel respecting the cease fire, something never happened before. Second, to lift the embargo. Without this, you won't have sustainable cease fire. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cast Lead: Achievements So Far

Map showing the Philadelphi Corridor

Although the IDF build-up on the border to Gaza is continuing, there are signs that Israel is hesitant about entering the "third stage" of Operation Cast Lead. The political and military echelons are still assessing whether a significant expansion of operations is worth it. As always in the Middle East, some dramatic event may drastically alter their assessments with immediate consequences. But for now, let us take stock of what has been accomplished and what remains to be done.

1) There is no doubt that at this point in time, Israel has weakened Hamas's political and military organizations. 

2)  the IDF has clearly re-established its deterrence force against the Palestinians and against other actors in the region. 

3) the army and government have made progress in finding ways to reduce Palestinian arms smuggling. 

4) the operation revealed the extent of Hamas's missile capabilities, averting a possible surprise in the future.

5) Cast Lead has managed to dent rocket firing in the short term, and has increased the pressure on Hamas to do so over the long term. 

The means by which Israel has achieved its objectives have not been pretty. From the beginning, the army treated this as a war rather than a policing operation. The IDF assumed correctly that Hamas would use civilian sites for defensive and offensive purposes. Mosques, hospitals, and residences have all served Hamas as storage depots, launching sites, and booby-trapped defensive installations so far in this war.  Thus, the army was aggressive from the outset. Air strikes flattened suspected traps, and ground troops called in planes, helicopters, and artillery whenever they encountered resistance that might embroil them in a deadly ambush or remote-controlled bombing. So far, this strategy has proven very effective at reducing IDF casualties. It has also led to the deaths of many Hamas fighters. Hamas miscalculated in thinking that the IDF would shy away from such tactics and that it would therefore be able to inflict many casualties on the invading forces. The greatest victims of this miscalculation have of course been the civilians of Gaza. I do not share the view that the civilian casualties will strengthen Hamas over the long term. Such an argument could have been made if Hamas had distinguished itself in the fighting; so far it has not done so, and it has proven incapable of protecting its population. 

The question now is whether, given these achievements, Israel is already in a position to force Hamas to agree to a truce that will represent a satisfactory improvement of the status quo ante, or whether such an outcome will require more fighting. Any cease fire must set the conditions for a permanent attenuation of Hamas. The good news is that Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and the U.S. are all interested in the reduction of Hamas's standing in the region. Egypt has certainly increased its standing vis-a-vis Hamas as a result of the IDF operation, and it will be eager to solidify these gains. It may very well do so by re-inserting forces loyal to the PA into Gaza through a stage-managed "reconciliation." The more difficult problem is finding a way to combat Hamas's ability to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Although a number of options have been suggested, none of them can actually be relied upon by Israel. The various Arab or European offers of help in border monitoring or even tunnel detection will not do the trick. The bulk of the work has to be accomplished during this operation. 

With these factors in mind, it is in Israel's interest to prolong the operation, while keeping it at the current intensity. Reserves do not have to be poured into heavy urban combat in Gaza City or the refugee camps. They can continue to chip away at Hamas at the current fashion, in the north of the strip, while in the south, Israel gathers intelligence on and destroys the tunnel networks. The operations in southern Gaza could conceivable continue even after the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. Israel and the U.S. share an interest in putting in place mechanisms for a management of the Philadelphi Corridor that will diminish the flow of arms and terrorists from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza and possibly vice versa.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Labor Party MKs Criticize Cabel's Vote on Arab Parties' Disqualification

MK Eitan Cabel (Labor)

For the latest sum-up of the Central Elections Committee vote see this article in the English edition of Ha'aretz.
Labor party backbenchers expressed their opposition to Cabel's vote in favor of the disqualification:

Senior Labor Party figures lashed out at the party's CEC representative, Eitan Cabel, who voted in favor of banning the two Arab parties. 

"[MK] Shelly Yachimovich and I thought we must object to the move to ban the Arab lists for reasons of freedom of expression," said Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog. "The minority's right to be heard must be preserved," he said. 

MK Ophir Pines (Labor) said from overseas that he strongly objected to Labor's stance in the vote and that it was not the position that had been agreed on. 
Cabel explains and qualifies his vote:
"It's true we said we wouldn't ban, but [Balad leader MK Jamal] Zahalka's statement that he was in touch with Bishara led me to think that we must draw the line somewhere," he said. "I'm making no apologies because I fight more than most in the Knesset for equal rights for Arabs. I know it won't stand up in the Supreme Court, and rightly so, because there is no evidentiary basis for the [committee's] decision." 

Israeli Arab Parties Disqualified from Elections

Logo of Bala"d (acronym for "National Democratic Assembly")

In a shocking and shameful decision, the Central Elections Committee (see English)  today (English) disqualified Bala"d and Ra"am-Ta"l, two Israeli Arab parties, from running in the upcoming 18th Knesset election. The disqualification hinged on the votes of the representatives from Kadima and the Labor Party on the committee. Kadima apparently endorsed the disqualification of both the parties, while the Labor Party voted only to disqualify Balad. To no one's surprise, the right-wing parties were jubilant about the outcome. Avigdor Liberman, most notably, called it the first step in a bid to outlaw the parties entirely. While the Arab parties themselves boycotted the vote, only Meretz, it appears, voted against the disqualification moves. 

From the coverage, it is unclear on what grounds the parties were disqualified. Past attempts to disqualify the parties were struck down by the Supreme Court. In conversation with Carmia, Meretz's Zehava Gal-On expressed confidence that this would be the likely outcome again, once the disqualification is challenged in the court. Nevertheless, Gal-On expressed consternation about Labor's support for the measure. She said it was "unimaginable that something like this could happen in the State of Israel."

Gal-On is right. I am no fan of these parties and the politics of their leaders. In fact, I abhor them as much as I do their counterparts on the far right. But the rationale given by Eitan Cabel for his support of the disqualification was so flimsy as to seriously cast doubt on the man's judgment. Apparently Cabel objected to the "defiance" of Jamal Zahalka at the committee hearings. Cabel referred to his "patriotic feeling" as having swayed his vote. Is this man serious? Is he really going to jeopardize the most basic democratic institutions of the state because of some vague feeling?  

Let's be clear. The behavior of Zahalka, Ahmed Tibi, and, before his abscondance, of Azmi Bishara in the Knesset is often repulsive. Many reasonable people can find their views odious. But are they inciting to ethnic hatred, as other disqualified parties were found to have done? Can it be proven that they are actively working to eliminate the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people? These are the two conditions for which parties may be disqualified. 

What this looks like is an exercise in stifling dissent. It is an attempt to outlaw "unpopular" opinions. The Arab parties, just like the right-wing, centrist, and left-wing Zionist parties deserve to be criticized, lampooned, vigorously opposed using democratic means. But as long as they are not breaking the law, they cannot be outlawed simply because they don't meet some standard of "patriotism" set by people such as Avigdor Liberman. As long as their struggle is conducted within the means of parliamentary democracy, it must be protected with the utmost resolution. Unless Zahalke et al. are calling for physical attacks against other Israeli citizens and institutions or hoping to accomplish this using the aid of an enemy state or terrorist organization, they have the right to excoriate Israel in whatever terms they see fit. They can even resort to vile, disgusting mischaracterizations of Israeli policy and society to do this. Indeed, they may even lie.  

To me, much of this is depressingly familiar from the days of the Bishara affair. I will not recycle here the arguments I made in its wake. Suffice to say that when so many parliamentarians show a blatant disregard for the basic tenets of liberal democracy, we are in serious trouble. If parties are going to be banned, the evidence must be incontrovertible that they indeed represent forces for which no room exists on the democratic spectrum. Let us hope that the Supreme Court reflects carefully on this matter. Unless there is evidence which has not yet been revealed to the public, a disqualification of Ra"am-Ta"al and Bala"d is unconscionable. 

ADDENDUM: The Parties Law of 1992 has the following limitations on a party's potential registration:
  • Any rejection (in the party's goals or activities) of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.
  • Any incitement to racism.
  • Any support of the armed struggle of an enemy state or terrorist organization against the State of Israel
  • Any hint of a cover for illegal activity.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Northern Front Erupts

The katyusha rockets fired at the northern Israeli town of Nahariya today from southern Lebanon have raised the stakes of the current conflict significantly. They raise the specter of wide-scale bombardment of the north of the sort we saw in the summer of 2006.

 On December 25, 2008, a number of katyusha rockets, apparently all aimed at Nahariya, were discovered by Lebanese security forces in southern Lebanon. They were disarmed shortly before their launch times. 

This time around, the Lebanese army did not reach the rockets in time, and UNIFIL has been shown to be incapable of stopping such attacks. As Lebanese sources rushed to declare, the rockets were most likely not fired by Hizbullah, but rather by one of the Palestinian factions allied with it. Nevertheless, it would be hard to imagine that Hizbullah did not know about the firing of these rockets. Nasrallah so far has stayed away from involving Lebanon in the Gaza conflict; he may have gotten a soft go-ahead from the Iranians or Syrians, to give a green light to Palestinian proxies. 

It remains to be seen whether this will lead to a major escalation. Israel will have to weigh its response carefully. Reservists are available to operate in the north, but Israel cannot afford to see Haifa, Nahirya, and who knows what other cities engulfed by Hizbullah fire. For now, it must attempt to curtail any escalation. 

Israeli-Egyptian Negotiations on Gaza

The main problem is the fact that Israel is preconditioning a cease-fire to a solution to the smuggling, while Egypt is asking for a cease-fire and the opening of the border crossings, before a resolution of the Hamas tunnels issue. 

Solana said Wednesday that the Union is ready to assist Egypt in preventing smuggling, but in an interview to Reuters he qualified that the assistance "will be mostly technological and not by the deployment of forces." 

The good news is that the Europeans support Israel's demands for an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza. The bad news is that few countries are willing to have their soldiers involved in the actual policing that would help to accomplish this.

What They Want

At the current stage of fighting, these are the aims of some of the important players:

Israel wants to keep fighting to further weaken Hamas, while it still can, and to put pressure on France, Egypt, and the U.S. to come up with a viable  post-war order.

Egypt wants Israel to keep fighting Hamas. Its post-war order includes a "reconciliation" of the Palestinians with the PA (Abu Mazen, Dahlan, etc.) restored to Gaza and Hamas weakened. It is not terribly enthusiastic about NATO or U.S. forces on its side of the border.

France wants its cease fire initiative, whatever it may be, to succeed, as soon as possible. It cares mainly about convincing Israel to stop fighting now. Whatever happens down the line is less important to Sarkozy at the moment.

The U.S. wants Hamas weakened AND a cease fire as soon as possible.

Hamas wants to go down as the Palestinian Hizbullah, and to improve the status quo ante - exclusive political control over Gaza, maintenance of its rocketing capabilities and arms smuggling, PLUS opening of the crossings. 

Update on Diplomatic Initiatives

Officers of the EU Border Assistance Mission at Rafah at a Medal ceremony. 
The mission has been on standby since June 9, 2007 (EU BAM Rafah)
Israel has agreed to setting up a "humanitarian corridor," which amounts to a daily, unilateral cease fire around Gaza City, between 1 and 4 pm. This will take some of the pressure off the Foreign Ministry as the diplomatic initiatives being discussed by various powers multiply.

The Israeli cabinet's deferral of a vote (Ha'aretz English) on expanding the ground operation must also be viewed as an attempt to show Israel's interest in a cease fire rather than the continuation of war. However, the conditions for a cease fire to go into effect are strict: an end to rocket fire and a commitment by the powers to combating the arms smuggling in a viable and proactive manner. It's unlikely that these prerequisites can be met soon. For one, Hamas's latest statement rejecting  a permanent truce with Israel only serve to strengthen arguments against a cease fire. More importantly, the proposal to internationalize the struggle against the arms smuggling tunnels still faces Egyptian opposition. It will be difficult to arrive at a solution that significantly upgrades border security. No one will accept a return to the days when impotent EU monitors "observed" the Rafah crossing. Apparently, France and the U.S. are now cooperating to persuade Egypt to implement measures with teeth:
Meanwhile, the international diplomatic effort being led by the United States, France, Britain and Egypt is still focused on an initiative to deploy an international force of experts and troops that would assist Egyptian authorities in dealing with the tunnel system Hamas has built along the Philadelphi Route, which borders Sinai. 

According to a political source in Jerusalem, France and the U.S. are working hard on Egypt to get it to agree to the initiative. 

"If a solution is found, we will have no problem in immediately bringing the operation to an end," the Israeli source said (Ha'aretz). 
Can the Egyptians be convinced that the internationalization of the crossings is in their best interest?

My sense is that the Egyptians themselves do not want the fighting to end yet, and are hoping for further attacks on Hamas's military forces and political infrastructure:
Meanwhile, Egypt denied on Tuesday a report that President Hosni Mubarak had told European ministers on a peace mission that Hamas must not be allowed to win the ongoing war in Gaza. 

Haaretz reported on Tuesday that Mubarak made the comment on Monday to a visiting European Union delegation, which included several European foreign ministers. "If an Israeli newspaper published comments such as these, non-attributed, from a closed meeting, how credible can it be?" said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki (Ha'aretz).

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Mubarak's Proposal

These are the details of the Mubarak proposal announced at Sharm, as reported in Ha'aretz. My translation / paraphrase with interspersed commentary follows.

ביום שני הציג סרקוזי לאולמרט יוזמה עליה שוחח עם שיא מצרים, חוסני מובארק, פירט אתמול את עיקרי הצעתו להפסקת האש המיידית בשארם א-שייח, שם נפגש עם נשיא צרפת, ניקולא סרקוזי. על פי ההצעה, ישראל והפלגים הפלשתיניים צריכים להסכים להפסקת אש מיידית לתקופה מוגבלת, שתאפשר מעבר בטוח לסיוע הומניטרי. מצרים תזמין גם את ישראל וגם את הפלשתינאים לפגישה דחופה שמטרתה להגיע להסדרים מידיים ולביטחונות שיבטיחו כי ההסלמה הנוכחית לא תישנה ולאחר מכן תזמין שוב את הרשות הפלשתינית ואת הפלגים הפלשתיניים כדי להגיב למאמציה להשגת פיוס לאומי.

With Sarkozy at his side, Mubarak announced his own proposal for an immediate cease fire. Under the proposal, Israel would have to agree on an immediate cease fire with the Palestinian factions for a limited period of time' that will put into effect a safe, humanitarian corridor. Egypt will also invite Israel and the Palestinians for an urgent meeting with the goal of arriving at immediate security arrangements that will guarantee that the present escalation will not be repeated. After that, it will again invite the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian factions in order to respond to its [i.e., the PA's - ?] efforts to achieve national reconciliation.

This version of the Egyptian proposal leaves a lot to be desired. It seems to give Hamas and the other "factions" equal representation at the negotiating table and would represent a victory in Hamas's struggle for legitimacy. I do not see why it should emerge from this fighting strengthened in this way. But it could be that the Egyptians are simply being careful and trying to manage a way to put the PA back in power - at least as far as the border crossings go. This is still not a viable solution.

The same article also discusses Sarkozy's plan for international engineering experts to be engaged on BOTH the Israeli and Egyptian sides of the border (where exactly? it's not clear whether this is talking about the Philadelphi corridor) to monitor Egyptian efforts to control the smuggling through tunnels. This sounds like a much weaker version of the proposal which would see the U.S. army engineering corps involved in destroying tunnels and making sure they stay that way. Thus, this option also does not seem feasible:

ביום שני הציג סרקוזי לאולמרט יוזמה עליה שוחח עם מובארק, לפיה יוקם מנגנון מיוחד של מומחי הנדסה שיפעל בצדו המצרי של הגבול ועוד מנגנון שיופעל בצד הישראלי. הכוח יפעל לצד כוחות הביטחון המצרים, ותפקידו יהיה לסייע אך גם לפקח ולעקוב אחרי הפעילות המצרית ולדווח על התקדמות הטיפול במנהרות. סרקוזי שביקר אתמול גם בדמשק, אמר בשיחה עם כתבים כי "הסכם הפסקת אש אינו רחוק".

But, read further on:
ביום שני הציג סרקוזי לאולמרט יוזמה עליה שוחח עם שלשום חשף "הארץ" את התוכנית המצרית כפי שהציגה מובארק. מקורות ערביים הדגישו כי ההצעה המצרית אינה אמורה לכלול את פתיחת מעבר רפיח, אלא לאחר הגעה להסכם שיאפשר נוכחות של כוחות הרשות במקום, או לחלופין של כוח בינלאומי. ההצעה המצרית גם אינה עוסקת במרחב הפעולה של החמאס סמוך לגבול עם ישראל. נציגי החמאס המשיכו אתמול לדון במתווה הפסקת האש עם אנשי המודיעין המצרי. הנציגים אמורים לשוב לדמשק ולהתייעץ עם צמרת הארגון. 

"Arab sources" qualified the Egyptian proposal. First of all, it would not result in an opening the Rafah crossing. That's quite convenient for the Egyptians, who do not want Gazans pouring into Sinai and beyond. The Rafah crossing into Egypt would only be opened after an agreement  that would allow the presence of Palestinian Authority forces on location. Basically, the PA would be re-inserted into the Gaza Strip, after having been expelled by Hamas. The other alternative: an international force. According to the source, the Egyptian proposal also doesn't address the area of operations for Hamas near the Israeli border. This could be the go-ahead for Israel to establish a security zone during the current round of fighting. Hamas representatives are currently meeting with Egyptian intelligence to sketch a cease fire agreement; they'll be heading back to Damascus for consultations with the leadership there.

A New Order for Gaza - Israel's Interests

Philadelphi Corridor

Current objectives:

1. Get the international community to force a settlement on Hamas under which it commits to a cessation of rocket attacks without preconditions.

2. Figure out a viable solution for the arms smuggling problem that involves credible powers who can be trusted to guarantee Israel's security.
"What to do about Hamas' arms smuggling currently appears to be the main sticking point holding up a cease-fire agreement. Israel is holding intensive talks with the United States in an effort to reach a deal that would be acceptable to Egypt. The proposals include sending in the U.S. Army's engineering corps to systematically destroy the entire Philadelphi Road, where the smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border are located. 

Three years ago, on the eve of the disengagement, then GOC Southern Command (and now Deputy Chief of Staff) Dan Harel proposed digging a canal the entire length of the Philadelphi Road to thwart the smuggling. At the time, his idea was dismissed as crazy. So Israel withdrew without any arrangements in place for Philadelphi, and the tunnels under the road became a smuggling superhighway for the rockets now being launched at Be'er Sheva, Ashdod and Gedera."

Source: Amos Harel in Ha'aretz.
In France, we read a slightly different spin on this option in Le Figaro
Plutôt que des observateurs, Israël serait prêt à accepter une force internationale active pour contrôler les 14 km de la frontière et éviter la reconstruction des tunnels détruits depuis le début de l'offensive militaire d'Israël à Gaza, il y a dix jours. Israël suggère que les Etats-Unis fournissent des troupes du génie chargées des tunnels. C'est une façon de remettre toute décision au 20 janvier, jour de l'investiture du président Barack Obama...

Il se trouve que le général James Jones, conseiller pour la sécurité nationale du nouveau président américain, a été chargé en novembre 2007 par Condoleezza Rice d'une mission sur les questions de sécurité liées aux négociations israélo-palestiniennes. L'ancien Chef d'état major des forces de l'Otan avait rédigé un rapport critique de l'armée israélienne et favorable au déploiement dans les territoires palestiniens d'une force internationale sous commandement de l'Otan. Cette idée pourrait bien devenir à l'ordre du jour.
The columnist seems to be arguing that Israel's insistence on having the U.S. play a lead role in a tunnel monitoring scenario is a way to delay the cease fire until January 20. This is silly. Of course the only acceptable solution for Israel would be one that puts the U.S. in a lead role. It's interesting that the writer then links these demands for a Gazan solution to James Jones's old report arguing for a NATO force in the West Bank. That's a pipe dream, and will not become "l'ordre du jour" anytime soon.

Means employed by Israel:

Weaken Hamas militarily and hold out possibility of utter devastation.


1. Hamas will not agree to any settlement.

2. Arms smuggling will not be curtailed even after measures are implemented.

3. IDF may prove unsuccesful in current operations on the ground, giving Hamas a public relations victory.

4. Settlement may end up legitimating Hamas rule and strengthen the organization in the international arena.

The Diplomatic Circus

Turkish PM Erdogan

Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" has generated a number of interesting diplomatic moves and rifts that give us some insights into the ambitions of various powers in the region.

Most remarkable have been Egypt's repeated pronouncements that Hamas itself is to blame for the crisis. The regime feels confident enought to withstand both foreign and domestic pressure, even as Nasrallah has castigated Mubarak for his alleged support of Israel. It is clear that Egypt wants Hamas weakened and is willing to tolerate large numbers of Palestinian casualties for this to happen. Egypt is asserting itself as the power broker in the Israeli-Gazan conflict, and making both the Iranians and Syrians look like idle talkers. The message to Hamas: we are your only road to salvation. 

The Jordanians are looking on quietly, hoping that the Israelis finish the job quickly, with as few Palestinian casualties as possible. They seem more antsy than the Egyptians about the operation's implications for them.

Among the Europeans, the French have played the most visible role in efforts to achieve a cease fire. Until now, their efforts have not achieved very much on the ground. Although Sarkozy has blamed Hamas for the eruption of violence, he has also tried to push for a quick end to the fighting. I am not sure what exactly France is up to. My sense is that Sarkozy is trying to seize an opportunity for France to establish another foothold in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Unlike the Egyptians, the French do not seem to place as high a priority on weakening Hamas. It is possible that they may even support a partial legitimization of the Hamas government in Gaza, which would be achieved through an insertion of French monitors at the Philadelphi corridor, to guard against the militarization of the Strip via underground tunnels. 

I am not sure how the Egyptians are responding to these moves. However it may be packaged, such international monitors on the Egyptian side of the border represent an affront to Egyptian sovereignty. Furthermore, Egypt may well want to keep some weapons against Israel in its arsenal, by preserving the option of turning a blind eye to Hamas or other Palestinian smuggling.

One can be sure that the Germans are watching France's high-profile diplomacy very carefully. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel is probably pursuing German objectives with a little more tact and efficacy than Sarkozy. 

The other regional power that has made headlines since the Gaza operation began is Turkey. Erdogan's condemnations of Israel have been especially damning. They seem to reflect Turkish public opinion but they are also, likely, connected to Turkey's efforts to mediate between Syria and Israel. Turkey has invested significantly in the Syrian track and sees the current conflict as a blow against its efforts and its standing in the Arab world. The Turks have also long sought a normalization of Hamas's rule over Gaza - I am not sure why this has been important to them (ideological reasons?).  

Qatar, as usual, is using the opportunity to strike blows at the Saudis, who are very quietly toeing the Egyptian-Jordanian-American line. 

For the U.S. and Israel the priority is that Hamas emerge visibly weakened from "Operation Cast Lead." Whatever cease fire emerges must look quite different also from the Lebanese solution.  Peace Now cannot mean War Tomorrow.

More on that in a future post.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Go In

Much of my thinking about the current operation has been guided by a hidden axiom, that Israel cannot, under any circumstances, reoccupy the Gaza Strip. I am starting to think that this premise was mistaken. The time has come for a ground operation that commits enough forces to the task of defeating Hamas.

As I read the editorials by commentators advocating a return to the tahadiyeh or cease fire, I am growing increasingly convinced that they are too optimistic about the possibility of reaching a durable accommodation with Hamas. Furthermore, in their desire to avert a ground operation by the IDF, some of these commentators are drawing imaginary red lines that have long been crossed. Thus, Steven Klein writes that
If the rockets continue, Israel would be free of the restraint dilemma it has confronted since the dawn of the Oslo era, while Hamas would emerge as the sole party responsible for the continuation of hostilities. Israel would then enjoy more support from its allies for subsequent military operations. 
But isn't this what the disengagement from Gaza was supposed to accomplish? Has Hamas not had opportunities to accumulate goodwill by ending its terrorist activities? What has really prevented the organization from ceasing its attacks on Israel? If Hamas were truly interested in peace with Israel, it would have found a way to demonstrate the sincerity of its intentions. It is time to stop supplying Hamas with excuses. Just like Hizbullah, Hamas will always find some reasons for  continuing the armed struggle - border crossings, prisoner exchanges, lifting of restrictions in the West Bank, and the list goes on.  And if met, each one of these preconditions for peace will further erode Israel's position vis-a-vis Hamas, as unfortunately, the Gaza evacuation did.

The truth is that Hamas has very little to offer Gazans other than a continuation of the "resistance" against Israel. Let's face it, Gaza is a demographic, environmental, and economic catastrophe. Plus, Hamas's Iranian and Syrian backers have no interest in removing this thorn in Israel's side.  What then could another cease fire, along the lines of the previous one, possibly accomplish? I think it would simply delay the inevitable future showdown.

The problem is that the longer an organization like Hamas stays in power and the more legitimacy it gets, the more difficult it will be to remove it from power once it becomes clear that it doesn't have an interest in ever normalizing relations with Israel. 

Thus, I think Israel has no option but to put all its resources toward crushing Hamas. This means putting boots on the ground - and a lot of them. I know that many people say that a "defeat" of Hamas is impossible. I agree that it's difficult. But I'm thinking about Russia's invasion of Georgia. Saakashvili was seriously weakened and will most likely lose the upcoming elections. Georgia's military power is destroyed. It will take decades before Georgia ever challenges Russia again. Even worse, it has probably lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia for good. 

The Russians exited Georgia at their own pace, with a cease fire agreement that represented a clear victory for them. On paper and on the ground, the current Georgian regime was utterly defeated. Russia and its allies accomplished this with utter ruthlessness, decimating the Georgian army even once the initial Georgian assault had been repulsed, and not showing very much consideration for civilians either. We don't know how many forces the Russians lost, but the casualties they endured were not insignificant. But could anyone say that it was not worth it for Russia? Has the Georgian war undermined Russia's legitimacy anymore than Putin already had? It is true that today Russia is in trouble, but its problems now have far more to do with the global economic crisis than the after-effects of the war with Georgia. 

It is true that innocent Palestinian civilians will die, if there is a ground operation. But no state can be expected to show more concern for the welfare of its enemy's civilian population than for the lives of its own people. Israel is not embarking on a quest to secure more land or resources for Israeli civilians; it wants only to protect its citizens from daily rocket attacks. 

Everyone asks what will happen on the day after an invasion of the Gaza Strip. Ideally, Israel will leave Gaza with a durable peace agreement, based on ideological commitments and facts on the ground. If that proves unattainable, Israel will have to contemplate ruling Gaza again, in a similar manner in which it controls the West Bank, minus the settlers.