Building on the Truce (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The argument over the truce agreement between Israel and Hamas reached in mid-June crosses both political lines and the usual divisions between the government and the military. Indeed, if in the past the IDF pushed for military operations, urging the political echelon "to let the army win," this time the defense establishment cooled the ardor of the politicians pressing for a massive strike to put an end to Qassam rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. Hamas's strong standing in Gaza is no accident. Of the Strip's one and a half million inhabitants, about 70 percent are unemployed and live on about $2 a day. They are not even in a position to "lose their chains." It was in this atmosphere of dire poverty and despair that Hamas seized control, promising religious solutions to the misery of the here and now, and offering social, political and military action ostensibly free of the bribery and corruption that characterized its secular Fatah predecessors. A myopic Israel also contributed to the rise of the radicals. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected every opportunity to transfer authority in Gaza to Fatah, and instead withdrew unilaterally. In his shortsightedness, he installed Hamas as rulers of Gaza, and all the rest is commentary. Israel has two possible approaches to resolve the conundrum of dealing with radicals in power who do not recognize its right to exist. One is to isolate Hamas from every conceivable angle by imposing an economic and naval blockade, hermetically sealing the border-crossing points, exerting relentless military pressure, including a large scale invasion. The other is to institute new pragmatic rules of the game, enabling Israel and Hamas to live side by side without de jure recognition, but making do with de facto arrangements. To have chosen the first option without first trying the second would have been totally irresponsible - not only from a moral and humanitarian point of view, but politically too: Had Israel rejected the truce, it would have been forced to pay a very high price in terms of its international and regional relations, especially with the Egyptians, who mediated the agreement in a bid to neutralize Hamas's ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, a persistent thorn in the Egyptian government's flesh. Straining the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, a cornerstone of regional stability, by rejecting the truce could have had major regional repercussions. Of course, there are also risks in choosing the second option and giving the truce a chance. Whatever controls Israel has insisted upon, Hamas will continue its military buildup and exploit its newfound legitimacy to convince other Palestinians that the only language Israel understands is force. This could lead to Hamas soon seizing power in the West Bank too. But the alternative - large-scale military action against Hamas - is worse. Apart from the inevitable Israeli military casualties, dozens of Palestinian civilians would be killed, sparking heavy political and economic sanctions against Israel, as well as unrest among Israeli Arabs and in the West Bank. Avshalom Vilan is a Meretz party Knesset member. Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.