08/02/05

Weary, Guarded Hope in Gaza by Omar Karmi

   

(Omar Karmi is managing editor of Palestine Report and a reporter for the Jordan Times.)

There is a bullet hole in the door of the Sufi family’s diwan. The windows are newly replaced. Inside the clan’s gathering place, a large rectangular room lined with cushions and small tables, there is further evidence of life on the front line in the Gaza Strip. At least eight more bullet holes add texture to the otherwise bare white walls. Family elder Humeid Ayed al-Sufi, 52, his wife and ten children live in the apartment upstairs. The apartment has four bedrooms, but for the past year the family has huddled together in the only one that does not overlook the street. “It’s just not safe at night. There’s too much shooting,” said Sufi, a taxi driver.

At the February 8 Sharm al-Sheikh summit between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the two sides agreed “to end all acts of violence.” While their agreement fell short of a formal ceasefire announcement, people like the Sufis in the Tal al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah will be the first to feel the effect of any lull in the violence.

“STOP SHOOTING”

Across the street and 500 meters of empty wasteland from the building where the Sufis live is the Egyptian border. Israeli army watchtowers overlook the area, both to control the border and to guard a nearby Jewish settlement. Tal al-Sultan is a place of nightly gunfire and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the second intifada.

Not far from here, in October 2004, an Israeli soldier reportedly emptied his magazine into wounded 13-year old schoolgirl Iman al-Hums. Five months earlier, Tal al-Sultan saw one of the Israeli army’s largest incursions into Palestinian territory in the four years of the intifada. The announced purpose of that incursion was to find and destroy tunnels allegedly used to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt. Those tunnels were put to a different use on December 12 when a large explosive device was placed under an army border outpost, and two armed Palestinians, one from Hamas’ Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades and one from the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Brigades, emerged shooting to claim the lives of five Israeli soldiers.

“I hope the fighters will stop shooting and the soldiers will withdraw,” said Sufi, speaking just over a week after ongoing talks between Abbas and the armed factions had resulted in an informal and temporary agreement to end attacks on Israeli positions. “There is still random shooting at night from the Israelis,” said Sufi, “though it’s much better than before. But we want complete quiet.”

RAPID SUCCESSION

Sufi might have his wish granted if all parties respect the ceasefire announcement in Sharm al-Sheikh. A lasting ceasefire would be a significant achievement for Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who ran his presidential campaign on a platform that included opposition to the armed intifada and a strategy of pursuing Palestinian goals through negotiations only. Following his victory in the January 9 election, his advisers and the international media claimed a ringing mandate for that agenda.

But Abbas’ presidency got off to a stormy start. On January 14, five days after the election, a joint operation mounted by the armed groups of Fatah, Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committees at the Mintar (Karni) crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel resulted in the deaths of six Israelis. The operation prompted Sharon to freeze newly restarted contacts with the Palestinian Authority (PA) the next day, even as Abbas was sworn in as president.

Abbas responded by immediately heading to Gaza for talks with the factions, but on the same day, January 18, a suicide bombing claimed by the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades killed one Israeli soldier and wounded seven others near the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif. The attack was widely interpreted as an open challenge to the new leader, and prompted substantial criticism in the Palestinian press. Writing in the al-Ayyam newspaper, Hani Habib argued that the two operations were legitimate resistance to the occupation, but also that they could be seen as an attempt “at undermining any popular mandate Abu Mazen has to put the Palestinian house in order and enable the PA to honor the obligations of the road map.”

Hamas denied that any challenge was intended, however, and soon there was an announcement that the talks had yielded an agreement to calm things down. On January 20, the PA, in coordination with the Israeli army, deployed troops in northern Gaza to prevent Qassam rockets from being fired at settlements or into the Israeli town of Sderot. Efforts at PA-Israeli security coordination resumed, with the first high-level meetings in a year and a half between former Palestinian minister of public security Muhammad Dahlan and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. On January 27, further PA troops were deployed in southern Gaza, and Sharon declared that he was “very satisfied” with the Palestinian measures. A date was announced for the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, freshly confirmed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid visits to Sharon and Abbas, and suddenly the hoped-for truce appears to be in place.

GHOSTS OF HUDNAS PAST

It was a rapid succession of events, one that has elicited sanguine commentary abroad, but too much water has passed under the bridge for Gazans to be anything but wearily and guardedly hopeful. Ask anyone whether they are optimistic that a ceasefire will work and the response is almost invariably a shrug of the shoulders and a “God willing.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, on the other hand, is blunt about what it would take for a ceasefire to prevail. “The ball is in Israel’s court,” he said in an interview before the Feburary 8 summit. “If they agree to our stipulations we can enter into a ceasefire.” Abu Zuhri, like most Hamas officials, rarely drives anywhere for fear of assassination, traveling mainly on foot instead. Perhaps as a result, or perhaps deliberately, he is a good hour late for an appointment with reporters in an office in downtown Gaza City.

An end to Israeli assassinations comes high on Hamas’ list of stipulations, which also includes an end to Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory, the removal of checkpoints, a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian towns and villages, and the return of the bodies of slain Palestinians as well as a return of those who were deported by Israel from the West Bank to Gaza. Finally, and Abu Zuhri stresses this point as “very important,” Hamas wants a release of Palestinian prisoners. Some 8,000 Palestinians arrested during the past four years currently languish in Israeli prisons.

His insistence on this point may partly explain the recent PA rejection of an Israeli cabinet decision to release 900 prisoners as an overture to Abbas, 500 of them before the February 8 summit. It would have been the largest such release in four years of fighting. On February 4, PA negotiators called the offer “insulting” and said it was “harming [Abbas] rather than coming toward him.” The PA is especially keen on the release of 234 prisoners who were incarcerated before the 1993 Oslo accords.

The two sides have been here before. During the 2003 “hudna,” the temporary ceasefire unilaterally entered by Palestinian factions when Abbas was prime minister, Israel released 339 prisoners in a similar “good will” gesture. But with 100 of the prisoners serving time for criminal offenses rather than anything related to the uprising, and most of the rest close to being let go anyway, the release angered rather than placated the Palestinian side. The prisoner release issue will continue to be contentious as long as Israel insists that prisoners with “blood on their hands” are not on the agenda.

The 2003 hudna was always conditioned on Israel’s response. But Sharon’s right-wing coalition government never acknowledged it as anything but an internal Palestinian issue. While there was some scaling back of Israeli army activity during that period, arrests of members of Palestinian factions continued, in several instances leading to bloodshed, most notably when four Palestinians, two Hamas members and two bystanders, were killed during an incursion into Nablus on August 9. Two suicide bombings killing two Israelis followed on August 12. When another Israeli incursion, ostensibly to arrest the Hebron leader of Islamic Jihad’s al-Quds Brigades military wing, Muhammad Ayyoub Daoud Sidr, resulted in his killing on August 15, a suicide bombing carried out by a Hamas activists in revenge killed 20 people in Jerusalem on August 19. Israel responded by assassinating senior Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab, and on the same day, August 21, the factions announced the hudna over.

That experience may explain why Abu Zuhri, who is as cautious about his choice of words as he is about how he travels and whom he meets, studiously avoids the word “ceasefire” or “hudna” in describing the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank, preferring instead the word “calm.” “Any ceasefire will not be between us and Abu Mazen,” he says. “There is currently no agreement for a ceasefire, but there is an initiative by the resistance factions to create a temporary calm to enable the success of the Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue.” Any formal ceasefire, he maintains, will depend on formal commitments from Israel that are implemented in practice.

“ABBAS’ PROGRAM”

Taking time off from organizing logistics for the January 27 municipal elections in Rafah, local Fatah leader Hasan al-Ajrami was equally insistent that while all Fatah members will follow “Abbas’ program,” the success or failure of that program “completely depends on Israel.” “If the Israeli incursions and killings continue, the armed resistance will be back by popular demand. You heard the firing tonight,” he continued, referring to several bursts of sometimes heavy machine gun fire from the direction of the Morag settlement that earlier had punctuated an otherwise unusually quiet Rafah evening. “There was no reason for that shooting. This simply has to stop.”

A similar burst of apparently random gunfire that morning from Israeli army positions around another settlement a little further north near Deir al-Balah killed a three-year old girl, Rahma Abu Shamas, as she was taking breakfast with her family. The Israeli army said there had been Palestinian shooting in the area at the time, something Rahma’s family flatly denied. “There was a 15-minute burst of gunfire from the settlement, “said Rahma’s father Ibrahim, 40, in the tented enclosure outside his tiny home where his daughter was killed. “I don’t know why. There is no rocket fire here, and there was no shooting before that. It happens often, but it had been quiet for three days even from the Israeli side, and we heard there was a ceasefire. Now, we see there’s no change.”

“International law gives us the right to fight the occupation,” Ajrami says. “When people’s houses are attacked like [Shamas’], they will fight back, and no one can or will prevent them from doing so.” Underneath the rhetoric, Ajrami’s is more or less the line that Abbas has taken himself. While PA security forces have been deployed to prevent rocket fire and “impose law and order,” Abbas has been clear that he has no intention of getting engaged in violent confrontations with the factions, thereby risking civil war. Israel is highly critical of this position, but Sharon’s government will have to accept it, at least for the time being, if a ceasefire is to hold any promise.

PA security officials in Gaza were not available for comment before the summit. Speaking on condition of anonymity, however, one lieutenant from the newly deployed security forces in Beit Hanoun near Gaza’s northern border with Israel made clear how far he was prepared to go in confronting members of the armed groups. “First of all, we [the security forces] are also of the people. As people we can talk, and that is what we will do to make them listen to us. If they still insist, we will use force, but I will not draw my gun. Spilling Palestinian blood is a red line we will not cross.”

He and his three subordinates were stationed as far north as had been agreed in the recent security coordination meetings with the Israeli army. Their orders were to prevent any unauthorized entry to the farms and orange groves that abut the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing and a small cluster of settlements nearby. A pickup truck ahead had been summarily turned away, to the obvious displeasure of its driver and passenger. So far, the unnamed lieutenant said, everyone had cooperated with them. “Everyone,” he said, “is concerned that there should be calm.” Such was also the assessment of Amin Abu Odeh, a Fatah candidate in the municipal council elections in Beit Hanoun. Speaking on the sidelines of a Fatah rally on January 25, Abu Odeh said: “The calm is very important. We will support quiet in this area, and act to shut up any troublemakers. We will do our best to push ourselves forward rather than backward.”

TIME ON WHOSE SIDE

In Tal al-Sultan, residents have acted several times to prevent Qassam rockets from being fired from the area, according to Sufi. “It is always [the residents] who pay the price. The Israelis don’t distinguish between civilians and fighters.” At the same time, no one questioned or criticized the volley of Qassam rockets the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades launched at Gush Katif settlements in almost immediate response to the January 31 slaying of a 10-year old Rafah schoolgirl.

Like it takes time for tea to brew, says Ajrami, it will take time for any ceasefire to take hold. He also acknowledges that, beyond the smaller factions including Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which have so far refused to accept the notion of a ceasefire under occupation, it will be hard for Fatah to control all the elements within its ranks. “There is opposition within Fatah against this move. There will always be opposition. But the strength of this opposition depends on Israel.”

Abu Zuhri is more confident about discipline from the rank and file within Hamas. Asked if all Hamas members would obey an order by the political leadership of the group to end armed resistance, Abu Zuhri answers without hesitation, as if amused by the suggestion that anything else would be possible. “For sure.”

Hamas has for some time been embroiled in an internal debate over how best to gain greater political influence over Palestinian institutions. Buoyed by recent successes in local elections — the January 27 vote handed Hamas control over seven of the 10 municipalities up for grabs — the movement is highly likely to enter elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in July. According to Abu Zuhri, the faction is so close to taking this decision as to be in advanced negotiations over election procedures with Fatah and the PA. The Hamas leadership holds Abbas in high regard, and all sides describe the current Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue as “serious and mature.” As such, and with some major “commitments” from Sharon in Sharm al-Sheikh, a stable ceasefire would be in the interest of the Islamist party.

If Hamas is on board, and given the widespread popular desire for peace and quiet, Abbas could be in a strong position to deliver “calm” from his side. With a left-wing coalition now propping up Sharon’s government, Israel appears prepared to go some distance toward assuring a ceasefire’s success. But, as the prisoner spat illustrates, for this ceasefire not to go the way of the 2003 hudna, substantial and immediate changes must happen on the ground — changes perhaps more substantial than Sharon is prepared to make. “Israel has again been offered a choice between an olive branch and a gun,” says Ajrami, in reference to Yasser Arafat’s 1974 UN speech. “Israel has the military might. It is the occupying power. You can’t expect an occupied people to show good intentions toward an occupation. Israel must prove its seriousness.”

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For background on the Palestinian presidential election, see Peter Lagerquist, “A Very Slippery ‘Landslide’ for Mahmoud Abbas,” Middle East Report Online, January 20, 2005.www.merip.org/mero/mero012005.html

. Middle East Report Online is a free service of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).