Cabinet links Gaza crossings to Schalit

Hamas: Decision a "stab in the back for Egypt;" cabinet rules out truce: We'll return calm for calm.

Olmert livni cabinet 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert livni cabinet 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
After a confusing week of mixed messages, Israel put Hamas on notice Wednesday that the crossings into Gaza will remain closed, except for humanitarian needs, until kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit is returned, and that Israel has no intention of entering into a formal cease-fire agreement. After a four-hour meeting of the 11-member security cabinet, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying the body had agreed that security prisoners would be released for Schalit, but had not specified who or how many. Those issues, according to the statement, would be dealt with at a latter time by the relevant authorities. Hamas called the security cabinet's decision a "stab in the back" to Egypt's efforts to facilitate a prisoner swap and a cease-fire agreement. Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said the group would not "succumb to Israel's attempts to extort us." He said Hamas was not in a rush to reach a cease-fire that would suit only Israel. "We preserve the right to defend ourselves," he said in response to a question about the possibility that the security cabinet's decision would lead to another round of violence. The significance of the decision, according to one Israeli government source, was that it made clear that the border crossings - so important for Hamas - would remain shut until Schalit was returned, and that Israel had no interest in reaching any formal agreement with the organization on any other matter. "When they say they are willing to discuss a yearlong cease fire, not an 18-month one, they are talking to themselves," the official said. "As the statement read, Israel will not negotiate with Hamas or any other terrorist organization over a cease-fire." According to the source, "Israel is not interested in any deal with Hamas above and beyond getting Schalit." The source said that according to the principles agreed upon by the security cabinet, "If there is quiet, we will respond with quiet. But if Hamas acts to destroy the quiet, if it shoots rockets at Israel or engages in arms smuggling or any other aggression, we reserve the right to respond." According to a statement issued after the security cabinet met, "Israel is not negotiating with Hamas or any other terrorist organization to reach understandings or arrangements with it on a cease-fire." The statement also said that Israel would respond "quickly, strongly and continuously to the continuation of terrorist actions against it from the Gaza Strip, including rocket fire, the smuggling of weapons and ammunition, and the strengthening of the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip." The statement was a clear indication that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had influenced the security cabinet's decision. Toward the end of Operation Cast Lead, she said that Israel should unilaterally stop shooting and use its military deterrence to keep Hamas from shooting, but not enter into any formal arrangements with Hamas arranged by Egypt. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's position at the time was that a formal agreement worked out through the Egyptians would be preferable. The statement was accepted unanimously by the ministers, including Barak. On the matter of Schalit, one government source said that, as it had promised the international community, Israel would allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip every day. (On Wednesday, some 200 trucks were allowed in, and a similar number of trucks are expected on Thursday.) However, the crossings would not be opened in a normal fashion until the abducted soldier was returned. "Expanded activity at the crossings will be discussed upon the release" of Schalit, the security cabinet statement said. According to government sources, this clearly meant the reconstruction of Gaza would not begin until Schalit was free, since the necessary materials would not be allowed in under the classification of humanitarian aid. The statement also said that the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Sinai would be opened in coordination with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, "only according to the parameters that were" previously set. This means that Israel will not accept a Hamas presence at the crossing, something the organization has been demanding. While certain names and numbers were discussed by the security cabinet regarding prisoners to be given up for Schalit, the was no agreement on a final list. "But," one cabinet source said, "all the ministers understand that a final deal will not be easy." Reacting to Hamas's rejection of linkage between Schalit and the border crossings, the source pointed out that Olmert had made it clear on Tuesday that Israel would not open up the crossings until its soldier was back home, and that a deal for Schalit might not take place until after the prime minister left office. "Schalit is the priority," the official said, "and ultimately the other side will understand that moving on Schalit is a prerequisite for moving on other issues." Hamas spokesman Radwan reiterated Hamas's position regarding a cease-fire. He said that any truce with Israel should include the reopening of all border crossings into the Gaza Strip. He also said that Hamas's position remained unchanged regarding Schalit. "We insist that the case of the soldier be dealt with separately from the other issues like the truce," he explained. "There should be no link between the case of Schalit and the reopening of the border crossings." The Hamas spokesman said that his movement was anticipating an escalation following the security cabinet's decision, and did not rule out the possibility that Israel would resume massive military operations in Gaza. Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, accused Israel of "obstructing" Egypt's efforts to reach a new cease-fire agreement by insisting on linkage between Schalit and the border crossings. Hamdan said the security cabinet's decision was a severe blow to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who supported Hamas's position on linkage. He added that this was an appropriate time for the Egyptians to reopen the Rafah crossing, "because Israel has shown that it's only interested in suffocating the Palestinians by keeping the border crossings closed." During the security cabinet meeting, Olmert said that accusations that Israel had pulled out of an already-finalized cease-fire agreement negotiated by Egypt were baseless. "We didn't give Egypt any agreement or framework for a deal from which we have suddenly withdrawn," he said. "I understand that there is some debate now over the goals of [Operation Cast Lead], but a [cease-fire] deal was not one of them." Olmert said Foreign Minister Livni had been adamant in her objections to any talk of a deal, and that he himself had "supported reaching understandings with the Egyptians." He added, however, that reneging on a deal facilitated by Egypt would cause irreparable harm to Israeli-Egyptian ties. While Olmert stressed that the security cabinet decision did not mean Israel sought a dispute with Egypt, "we need to protect our interests." He read out a number of quotes from a document agreed upon with the Egyptians in June 2008 regarding the last cease-fire. One was a statement that without Schalit's release, a truce with Hamas could not be maintained. "We said this unequivocally and it was clear to our Egyptian partners," Olmert said. "There is no reason for Israel to act now as though it has lost every shred of self-respect, and submit to Hamas's terms." According to government officials, Olmert decided to convene the security cabinet to discuss linkage when he concluded that Hamas had no real intention of releasing Schalit as part of an overall cease-fire, and that it was interested in dragging out the matter indefinitely. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry's diplomatic-military bureau chief, would return to Cairo for talks on Schalit and the situation in the South in the next few days. Gilad was reprimanded by Olmert on Wednesday for publicly criticizing the way the government has handled the Schalit and cease-fire issues. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki, meanwhile, declined to comment Wednesday on the Israeli security cabinet decision. However, other officials in Cairo told the official MENA news agency that Palestinian reconciliation talks, which were scheduled for this coming Sunday, had been postponed "for a short period." The Egyptian initiative behind the planned talks called for an immediate cease-fire, followed by meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials to secure a long-term cease-fire and, finally, Palestinian reconciliation talks. Zaki confirmed that Palestinian reconciliation talks had been postponed because cease-fire talks were expected to continue for some time. "Obviously, it will take longer," he told The Jerusalem Post. Brenda Gazzar contributed to this report.