January 18, 2009

Ceasefire in Gaza?

from Tel Aviv

Israel annoucned a unilateral ceasefire effective at 2:00 am local time on Sunday for its forces in Gaza. Not long after that, there was at least one exchange of fire on the ground, a rocket attack on southern Israel and an Israeli response.

It would appear that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni prevailed at the late night cabinet meeting. She has for the last week or so proposed a unilateral ceasefire that did not require a Hamas agreement. Her rationale was that agreements only limit Israel since Hamas cannot be trusted to abide my any agreement.

Hamas announced that they were not bound by the Israeli ceasefire declaration and repeated its earlier demands that Israeli troops withdraw from the Gaza Strip. For the time being, Israeli troops are remaining in their positions.

If the ceasefire does not hold - and the betting here in Israel is that it will not - what is the next move for the Israelis? Do they restart the offensive and push deeper into Gaza, including into the densely populated cities of Gaza and Rafah, as well as the Jabaliyah and Khan Yunis refugee camps? This has been Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's position - if Hamas does not abide by a ceasefire, the Israel Defense Force should be given free reign to hunt down the remaining members of Hamas and destroy the organization. Of course, this flies in the face of Olmert's claim when he announced the ceasefire that all of the objectives of the military operation have been met.

Now the Israelis are in place in Gaza, not yet in an occupation mode, but it has the danger of turning into one unless they resolve the answers to a series of questions. No one in Israel, especially the IDF, wants a re-occupation of the Gaza Strip. Will Hamas be smart and sit tight until the Israelis feel confident that the ceasefire will hold and thus start the withdrawal of their forces? Will the Israelis begin to demobilize the reservists called up for duty in the operation? What happens if Hamas waits until then and resumes rocket attacks on southern Israel?

All good questions, and not many answers. Welcome to Gaza.