Contrary to Israel's argument that it was forced
to launch its air and ground offensive against Gaza in order to stop the firing
of rockets into its territory, Hamas proposed in mid-December to return to
the original Hamas-Israel cease-fire arrangement, according to a U.S.-based
source who has been briefed on the proposal.
The proposal to renew the cease-fire was presented by a high-level Hamas delegation
to Egyptian Minister of Intelligence Omar Suleiman at a meeting in Cairo Dec.
14. The delegation, said to have included Moussa Abu Marzouk, the second-ranking
official in the Hamas political bureau in Damascus, told Suleiman that Hamas
was prepared to stop all rocket attacks against Israel if the Israelis would
open up the Gaza border crossings and pledge not to launch attacks in Gaza.
The Hamas officials insisted that Israel not be allowed to close or reduce
commercial traffic through border crossings for political purposes, as it had
done during the six-month lull, according to the source. They asked Suleiman,
who had served as mediator between Israel and Hamas in negotiating the original
six-month Gaza cease-fire last spring, to "put pressure" on Israel
to take that the cease-fire proposal seriously.
Suleiman said he could not pressure Israel but could only make the suggestion
to Israeli officials. It could not be learned, however, whether Israel explicitly
rejected the Hamas proposal or simply refused to respond to Egypt.
The readiness of Hamas to return to the cease-fire conditionally in mid-December
was confirmed by Dr. Robert Pastor, a professor at American University and
senior adviser to the Carter Center, who met with Khaled Meshal, chairman of
the Hamas political bureau in Damascus on Dec. 14, along with former President
Jimmy Carter. Pastor told IPS that Meshal indicated Hamas was willing to go
back to the cease-fire that had been in effect up to early November "if
there was a sign that Israel would lift the siege on Gaza."
Pastor said he passed Meshal's statement on to a "senior official"
in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) the day after the meeting with Meshal.
According to Pastor, the Israeli official said he would get back to him, but
"There was an alternative to the military approach to stopping the rockets,"
said Pastor. He added that Israel is unlikely to have an effective cease-fire
in Gaza unless it agrees to lift the siege.
The Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment Thursday on whether
there had been any discussion of a cease-fire proposal from Hamas in mid-December
that would have stopped the rocket firing.
Abu Omar, a spokesman for Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Syria, told CBS News
Wednesday that Hamas could only accept the cease-fire plan now being proposed
by France and Egypt, which guarantees an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza as
soon as hostilities on both sides were halted. Israeli government spokesman
Mark Regev said Israel would only support the proposal if it also included
measures to prevent Hamas from re-arming.
The interest of Hamas in a cease-fire agreement that would actually open the
border crossings was acknowledged at a Dec. 21 Israeli cabinet meeting
five days before the beginning of the Israeli military offensive by
Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet. "Make
no mistake, Hamas is interested in maintaining the truce," Diskin was
quoted by YNet News agency as saying.
Israel's rejection of the Hamas December proposal reflected its preference
for maintaining Israel's primary leverage over Hamas and the Palestinian population
of Gaza its ability to choke off food and goods required for the viability
of its economy even at the cost of continued Palestinian rocket attacks.
The cease-fire agreement that went into effect June 19, 2008, required that
Israel lift the virtual siege of Gaza which Israel had imposed after the June
2007 Hamas takeover. Although the terms of the agreement were not made public
at the time, they were included in a report published this week by the International
Crisis Group (ICG), which obtained a copy of the understanding last June.
In addition to a halt in all military actions by both sides, the agreement
called on Israel to increase the level of goods entering Gaza by 30 percent
over the pre-lull period within 72 hours and to open all border crossings and
"allow the transfer of all goods that were banned and restricted to go
into Gaza" within 13 days after the beginning of the cease-fire.
Nevertheless, Israeli officials freely acknowledged in interviews with ICG
last June that they had no intention of opening the border crossings fully,
even though they anticipated that this would be the source of serious conflict
The Israelis opened the access points only partially, and in late July Foreign
Minister Tzipi Livni declared that the border crossings should remain closed
until Hamas agreed to the release of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier abducted
by Hamas in June 2006. The Hamas representative in Lebanon, Usam Hamdan, told
the ICG in late December that the flow of goods and fuel into Gaza had been
only 15 percent of its basic needs.
Despite Israel's refusal to end the siege, Hamas brought rocket and mortar
fire from Gaza to a virtual halt last summer and fall, as revealed by a report
by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) in Tel Aviv last
month. ITIC is part of the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration
Center (IICC), an NGO close to the Israeli intelligence community.
In the first days after the cease-fire took effect, Islamic Jihad fired nine
rockets and a few mortar rounds in retaliation for Israeli assassinations of
their members in the West Bank. In August another eight rockets were fired
by various groups, according to IDF data cited in the report. But it shows
that only one rocket was launched from Gaza in September and one in October.
The report recalls that Hamas "tried to enforce the terms of the arrangement"
on other Palestinian groups, taking "a number of steps against networks
which violated the arrangement," including short-term detention and confiscating
their weapons. It even found that Hamas had sought support in Gazan public
opinion for its policy of maintaining the cease-fire.
On Nov. 4 just when the cease-fire was most effective the IDF
carried out an attack against a house in Gaza in which six members of Hamas'
military wing were killed, including two commanders, and several more were
wounded. The IDF explanation for the operation was that it had received intelligence
that a tunnel was being dug near the Israeli security fence for the purpose
of abducting Israeli soldiers.
Hamas officials asserted, however, that the tunnel was being dug for defensive
purposes, not to capture IDF personnel, according to Pastor, and one IDF official
confirmed that fact to him.
After that Israeli attack, the cease-fire completely fell apart, as Hamas began
openly firing rockets into Israel, the IDF continued to carry out military
operations inside Gaza, and the border crossings were "closed most of
the time," according to the ITIC account.
Israel cited the firing of 190 rockets over six weeks as the justification
for its massive attack on Gaza.
(Inter Press Service)