January 7, 2009

Gaza: French-Egyptian truce proposal falls short

by Rick Francona

Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and French President Sarkozy have proposed a ceasefire to end the current violence in the Gaza Strip. The proposal includes an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the area, followed by talks between Hamas and the Israelis to develop a permanent solution.

The two presidents are well-meaning - it is a noble effort to try to end the hostilities that have killed over 600 Palestinians during the last 12 days. It is a difficult issue. On one side, you have a group of Islamic militants committed to the destruction of Israel, who have refused to stop firing rockets at Israeli cities. On the other side is one of the world's best-trained and equipped military powers intent on eliminating the threat to its citizens. Neither appears willing to give in - it is a recipe for disaster.

France and Egypt are not the key players here - Hamas and Israel are. According to Sarkozy, Israel has "conditionally accepted" the proposal, while the Israeli media reports that Israeli leaders are "taking the proposal seriously." On the Hamas side, an official in Sarkozy's office reported that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad backs the proposal and that he will urge Hamas to stop firing rockets at Israel. Palestinian President Mahmud 'Abbas has agreed to the proposal, but there has not been a direct reponse from Hamas. Neither Asad nor 'Abbas speak for Hamas.

According to the Egypt's ambassador to United Nations, representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have agreed to meet separately with Egyptian officials in Cairo. The Egyptian foreign minister was not so confident in this characterization, stating merely that Hamas had been invited to the talks. He also seemed to be downplaying expectations of the talks, now hoping for a "limited ceasefire" to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza - a far cry from the permanent ceasefore and Israeli withdrawal hinted at earlier in the week.

There are several elements missing in the French-Egyptian proposal - all show stoppers. The most immediate is a provision in the plan that will prevent Hamas from firing rockets into Israel and prevents the group from rearming via the Egyptian border. The proposal, as I understand it, merely calls for a ceasefire, followed by talks between Hamas and Israel, not for the introduction of an international force to prevent arms smuggling and Hamas rocket attacks. "Talks" to Hamas normally means a breather during which it will try to regroup and rearm. In addition, Israel has stated that it will not negotiate with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization.

The Cairo meetings may be the first steps in the ceasefire process, but I do not see the Israelis agreeing to stop their attacks unless there is a provision for a monitoring and enforcement mechanism, most likely an international force. Until Hamas agrees to that protocol, Israel will continue its actions in Gaza.