February 14, 2009

Israel-Hamas truce - not even close

Israel - Gaza borderIsrael - Gaza border

For the last few weeks, there has been a constant stream of announcements from the Egyptian negotiators that a long-term truce agreement between Israel and Hamas was imminent. It sounded like there were only a few remaining obstacles that were about to be worked out.

Just a few days ago, there was a statement from Musa Abu Marzuq, deputy leader of Hamas, that the group had agreed to an 18-month ceasefire and that Egypt would announce the truce by February 14. What Marzuq meant to say was that Hamas and Egypt had agreed to terms for a truce. Apparently, they neglected to secure Israel's agreement to those terms.

One of Hamas's key demands is that Israel open the border crossings and lift the restrictions on the importation of anything other than humanitarian aid. Israel is willing to do this under on the condition that someone other than Hamas controls the border crossings with Egypt.

It is that border where virtually all of Hamas's weapons enter the Gaza Strip. There also needs to be an inspection or observer protocol to ensure that no additional weapons are smuggled into the Gaza Strip. However, Hamas claims that it has already replenished much of the weaponry used or destroyed in the conflict with Israel.

Another issue in which Hamas may have not coordinated fully with Egypt is the fate of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit has been in Hamas custody since he was captured in a 2006 raid on the Israel-Gaza border. Marzuk said that Shalit's release - in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails - would be settled "later." Today, Israeli Prime Minister said that Shalit's release is not an issue for later, but an integral part of this truce agreement.

For now, the negotiations brokered by Egypt seem to have stalled. This is yet another instance of Hamas and Egypt agreeing on a set of conditions and claiming a breakthrough in the talks. The problem is that Egypt and Hamas are not the two opposing sides, Hamas and Israel are. Egypt's agreement is meaningless unless they can sell it to the Israelis. Thus far, they have not.

Egypt wants to be successful in this mediation effort. It needs to make itself relevant again in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it does not appear to have sufficient influence with Hamas to deliver the conditions Israel considers the minimum to agree to a truce.

Pressure will continue to mount on Hamas to acquiesce to Israel's demands. The Israeli government has broad popular support for standing firm against Hamas and will continue to respond to the occasional Hamas rocket attack with punishing air raids and tighter border restrictions.

Hamas and the people of Gaza whom they claim to represent, on the other hand, suffer more each day.