RAMALLAH - Israel is toughening its negotiating stance with Hamas as the two
try to hammer out a permanent cease-fire agreement.
According to reports in the Arab media a permanent cease-fire between the
Jewish state and the Islamic resistance organization would have gone into effect
as early as Sunday had the Israeli government not suddenly upped the ante.
A temporary cease-fire was established Jan. 18 following Operation Cast Lead,
Israel's name for its military assault on Gaza, which left over 1,300 Palestinians
dead and nearly 5,000 wounded, most of them civilian.
However, sporadic rocket-fire on Israel and Israeli military raids into Gaza
since then have increasingly threatened the fragile calm.
Israeli elections last week saw the country's far-right make substantial gains
as a precursor for taking over the next government.
This together with the hammering Hamas received during the Gaza war has made
Israel increasingly confident of being able to dictate the terms of any forthcoming
A statement released by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office Saturday
said that Israel would not agree to any cease-fire unless captured Israeli
soldier Gilad Shalit was released as part of any deal.
"The prime minister's position is that Israel will not reach understandings
on a truce before the release of Gilad Shalit," the statement said.
Shalit was captured by Hamas fighters in 2006 near the Gaza-Israel border
and has been held in a secret location in Gaza ever since.
Hamas has demanded the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in
Israel jails, many of whom have been detained without trial, in return for
The group labeled the tying of a cease-fire to the release of Shalit unacceptable
and said this was part of a later and separate deal involving an exchange of
Even Hamas' bitter enemy, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank,
called Israel's latest demand unreasonable.
Sa'eb Erekat, a PA negotiator, rejected the link. He called the idea "blackmail"
and a violation of a 2005 agreement between Israel and the PA on the management
of Gaza's border crossings.
Progress on a permanent cease-fire has also stalled around Israel's demand
that any truce be open-ended.
Hamas accused Israel of causing a last-minute setback in the indirect truce
negotiations by demanding that no time limit be set. The group said initial
negotiations had centered around an 18-month cease-fire.
Prior to Israel's latest demands, cautious optimism and the possibility of
the implementation of a more permanent agreement had risen toward the end
of last week.
Egypt, which has been struggling to mediate between Hamas and Israel, had
reported progress in the dragged-out negotiations.
Cairo has been holding separate meetings between a Hamas delegation in Cairo
and an Israeli envoy who has been flying between Tel Aviv and the Egyptian
Hamas deputy head Moussa Abu Marzouk said last week that his organization
had agreed to an 18-month truce with Israel and this would be announced within
a few days.
Taher Nunu, a Hamas spokesman accompanying the Hamas delegation in Cairo,
also reported that an agreement was expected within the coming days. He said
progress had been made on a cease-fire, on a reconciliation between Hamas and
Fatah, and on reconstruction funds for Gaza.
"Many obstacles have been resolved, especially stopping all forms of
aggression and the issue of the quality and kind of goods entering Gaza, and
the opening of the border," Nunu said in a statement.
However, over the weekend Israel's attitude toward a deal with Hamas appeared
to harden significantly.
Following the final tally of election votes, including outstanding absentee
votes during the week, a far right-wing government in Israel appeared to be
Emboldened by the election results and in consultation with parliamentary
colleagues, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to raise the bar for
Hamas. Olmert will step down in the near future on the back of a serious corruption
With nothing to lose, and on the contrary a chance to salvage what remains
of his tattered reputation should he secure the release of Shalit, Olmert made
the release of the Israeli corporal a prerequisite for any cease-fire agreement.
According to Israeli sources, Olmert had been given the green light to talk
tough with Hamas by the next expected Israeli prime minister, Likud hawk Binyamin
Netanyahu would like Shalit's release sorted prior to taking office. His release
is expected to simultaneously involve the release of Hamas and other Palestinian
prisoners, among whom are senior commanders and members involved in suicide
This is something many Israelis are opposed to, and Netanyahu doesn't want
to be seen as somebody who caved into "negotiating with terrorists"
whom Israel accuses of having "blood dripping from their hands."
Following the cease-fire setback, on Friday Hamas' Damascus-based politburo-chief
Khaled Meshal eventually confirmed that several further complications had arisen
that could possibly stall an agreement.
According to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Shalit and the length
of any cease-fire are not the only issues complicating an agreement.
He said there are other obstacles which remain to be resolved. These include
establishing a buffer zone between Gaza and Israel, a cessation of rocket-fire
and Israeli military raids, both sides respecting the truce, and a halt to
In the interim the Israeli cabinet met Sunday to begin finalizing its future
policy toward Gaza.
The cabinet also discussed final conditions for a permanent cease-fire with
Hamas, confident that a cease-fire was not only possible in the very near future
but on terms and conditions favorable to Israel.