Cease-Fire, Or Expansion?


Despite Israel’s claims that the war against Hamas has damaged it militarily, Hamas continued firing rockets into Israel Wednesday from the Gaza Strip and rejected a proposed permanent cease-fire even as Israel considered expanding its ground assault.

“We are not looking for a cease-fire, but a cease of terror,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said Wednesday. “No nation has ever had such a confrontation.”

Peres’ declaration came amid mounting international pressure for Israel to accept a cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a statement Wednesday thanking the two men for their efforts to “end the terror and weapon smuggling emanating from Gaza,” and said Israel would send representatives to Cairo to study their proposal.

“Israel sees the dialogue between Egyptian and Israeli delegates, meant to advance these issues, as positive steps,” the statement said. “Israel is operating with the intent of bringing an improvement in the security reality in the south of Israel.”

The cease-fire initiative calls for the deployment of an international force of combat engineers that would deal with the tunnels along the Philadelphi Route that separates the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The force would work in coordination with a naval force that would patrol the Gaza Strip shores.

Officers from the U.S. Engineering Corps are already in the town of Rafa near the Egyptian-Gaza border to monitor the border and destroy Hamas tunnels used to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip, the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi reported Wednesday.

But even as Israel spoke of a cease-fire to end the war it began Dec. 27, the Israeli cabinet had still not ruled out expanding the military operation in the Gaza Strip. And a senior Hamas leader, Moussa Abu Marzouk, was quoted Wednesday as saying that Hamas would not discuss a permanent cease-fire as long as the Israeli occupation and siege of Gaza continued. But he said he was studying the cease-fire proposals.

Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. supported the initiative, she made it clear that any ceasefire had to be “durable and sustainable” and ensure that Hamas would never again be able to resume its seven-year long campaign of daily rocket attacks at Israeli civilians.

“A cease-fire that returns to those circumstances is unacceptable and will not last,” Rice said.

Mordechai Kedar, an Arab expert at the Begin-Sadat Center, predicted that as long as the Bush administration refused to pressure Israel into accepting a premature cease-fire, the Israeli offensive would continue.

“So far President [George W.] Bush has let Israel do what it wants,” he said.

Bush’s stance is contrary to that of Sarkozy and other European leaders who want an immediate halt to all fighting “because they don’t want the Muslims in their countries to start riots,” Kedar said.

“Sarkozy is the most dependent on Islamic workers,” he pointed out. “Communications and the transportation system are operated in many cases by Muslims.”

Asked how long the Israeli offensive might last, Kedar said the Israeli government deliberately “never published what it will consider as mission accomplished. I hope they know and have a goal — an exit point. In [the war against Hezbollah in 2006], Israel made a mistake in publishing what its aims were.

When they were not achieved, it was looked upon as a failure.”

Nevertheless, Kedar said it is clear that Israel launched this war in order to return normal life to the people of southern Israel. And that is something that can be achieved even if Hamas remains in power.

“Hamas is a popular movement with thick roots in Palestinian society,” he explained. “We are not going to re-engineer their mentality. Add to this that Israel is not confident the security organs of [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] can really do the job in Gaza.

“So Hamas can stay on condition that it lets us live and leaves us alone. Hamas will have to build a bridge between their ideology [which calls for the destruction of Israel] and reality.”

Failure to achieve that objective could be political career breakers for both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, both of whom are running for prime minister in an election Feb. 10, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

But even if the war succeeds in disarming Hamas, Steinberg said he doubts it would catapult Barak to the premiership.

“Barak may be seen during the war as an extremely good defense minister,” he said. “But when the war is over, he may still be seen as making a terrible prime minister.”

Raphael Israeli, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he believes the Israeli public will not forgive Livni or Barak at the polls if Israel is not seen as having won this war.

“Voters will not allow the fiasco of the Lebanon War to be repeated here,” he said, referring to the widespread belief that Israel lost the war with Hezbollah because Hezbollah has been allowed to rearm and become even stronger.

“Here they have to come up with positive results because they initiated this war and recruited public opinion in support of the war,” Israeli said. “They cannot now say it was not their fault. They don’t want to be accused of having ended the war without [positive] results.”

So far, Israeli said, Hamas has succeeded in “turning its weakness into strength by using civilians to hide behind.”

At midweek, about 300 of the more than 670 Palestinians killed were civilians — many of them children, according to Palestinian and United Nations figures. More than 30 were reportedly killed at a UN school, which Israeli forces said they fired upon in response to Hamas terrorist fire from or near the school. An Israeli spokesman said Israel would not have returned fire had it known civilians were there.

And at the UN’s request, Israel declared a three-hour halt to all military operations Wednesday to permit food and medical supplies in Gaza to be transported to the areas of greatest need.

Israeli military operations resumed thereafter. Steinberg said Israel had learned a lesson from the Lebanon War when it suspended all military operations for 48 hours following a reported 57 civilian deaths from an Israeli missile attack in the Lebanese city of Kafr Kana in July 2006. During that interval, he said, Hezbollah had time to regroup and expand the war significantly.

“Olmert said we are not going to make that mistake again,” Steinberg said.

He said he would not rule out Israel sending in significantly more ground forces “to expand the level of fighting — more door-to-door combat and a more visible presence of troops inside neighborhoods. … A lot of the military is saying we have no choice.”

Asked about the cease-fire proposal, Steinberg said that at the moment it appears to lack teeth.

“If the cease-fire is like a Band-Aid and Israel is hit harder in two years, it will be a huge disaster,” he said.

Although Egypt is involved in brokering the cease-fire proposal, it cannot in the future be counted on to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip because its prior record has been so poor, Steinberg said.

“Nobody wants to insult Egyptian leadership, but it has been inefficient,” he said. “If it had any ability to end the transfer of weapons, it would have done it. So there is no real expectation that the Egyptians can deliver. And NATO said it does not want to put its troops into harm’s way.”

So until countries announce that they are really prepared to send in troops to keep Hamas from rearming, Steinberg said the talk of a cease-fire “is all lip service.”