Israel Rejects Ceasefire Offer with Hamas [April 20 – 26]
April 26, 2008

On April 25, Israel officially snubbed the six-month ceasefire offered by the Hamas leadership, deeming the proposal as “not serious”. The offer, which was released late on April 24 following a day-long private meeting between Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar and Egypt’s head of intelligence Omar Suleiman, stated that Hamas would cease firing rockets into Israel if, in turn, Israel ended its blockade on Gaza and reopened the border crossings, including the southern crossing of Rafah which links the coastal strip with Egypt.

Mahmoud Zahar also stipulated that the truce would start in Gaza and would be gradually applied to the West Bank, warning that “the ball now is in the Israeli court” and if refused “then it will be our right to defend our people in all legitimate ways”. The proposal of peace came just a few days after the group admitted that it would contemplate a peace agreement with Israel. Hamas’ rhetoric changed following the visit of former US President Jimmy Carter, who controversially met with Hamas officials in the West Bank, Egypt and Syria, much to the dismay of Israel but in an attempt to breach the divide and work towards brokering some sort of peace between the two parties through the medium of dialogue rather than aggression.

After Hamas politburo chief Khaled Me’shaal met with Jimmy Carter, the exiled leader based in Damascus declared that Hamas would accept a deal with Israel if it was approved in a Palestinian referendum and would offer a 10 year hudna [truce] if Israel withdrew from the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Me’shaal stated that he would not recognize Israel and would not cease rocket attacks on Israel. Whereas his words slightly contradict the points present in the April 24 proposal, Mahmoud Zahar announced that the offer had been fully endorsed by the Hamas leadership in Syria.

However, Israel, which questions Hamas’ ability to convince other politically-affiliated military groups to halt rocket attacks, immediately dismissed the offer. Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev expressed his analysis on the deal by saying that “the quiet they seem to be proposing is the quiet before the storm”. Israel fears that opening the crossings, especially at Rafah, would simply allow Hamas to strengthen militarily and financially within the six-month period.

Israel’s discarding of the Hamas proposal subsequently brought several thousand Palestinians to the streets in Gaza protesting the Israeli blockade. In the northern town of Jabaliya, 5,000 disgruntled Palestinians held signs with the message “no to the siege” sprawled on them. In the south, 1,000 gathered in Rafah to voice their discontent with the conditions and appeal to the Egyptians to come to their aid by opening the crossing. In response, Egypt deployed 300 soldiers to the border in order to deter any Palestinian plans that may have involved forcing open the crossing like on January 23. The stationing of Egyptian troops in the area also differed from statements issued by Hamas which ensured that Egypt would open the Rafah crossing even if Israel refused a peace deal.

The protests in Gaza occurred after it was revealed on April 24 that the UN would have to suspend aid distribution to Gaza because they had no fuel for their delivery trucks. Spokesperson for UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency] Chris Gunnes said in reference to the conditions in Gaza that “hungry, angry people do not serve the interests of peace, neither do they serve Israel’s security interests”. With the general uncertainty surrounding who is to blame concerning the distribution of fuel following the immensely dire state of Gaza amidst statements from Israel that one million liters of fuel remain held on the Gaza side, special UN envoy Robert Serry simply implored that “Hamas…must ensure conditions to enable the distribution of supplies at Nahal Oz” while “Israel must restore adequate supplies of diesel and benzene for the civilian population of Gaza in accordance with international law”.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, after visiting Russia, Tunisia and Iceland, flew into Washington on April 22 for talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President G. W. Bush regarding the peace process. However, President Abbas concluded his discussions on April 25 by asserting that “so far nothing has been achieved”.

The aim of the trip was to push the US on implementing the first stage of the road map, an obligation both sides committed to at the Annapolis summit in November. Israel is currently not abiding by its responsibilities and continues to construct settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, refuses to dismantle any illegal outposts, release prisoners or stop incursions into the West Bank which undermine Abbas’ road map obligations and fails to remove roadblocks which greatly hinder Palestinian movement and access.

Instead the Palestinian President was met with the same response from his US counterpart who promised progress before he leaves office and announced to reporters that "I assured the president that a Palestinian state's a high priority for me and my administration, a viable state, a state that doesn't look like Swiss cheese". G. W. Bush is contemplating adding to the $555 million the US has already pledged to Abbas and has recruited the third high ranking US individual to help boost Palestinian hopes for peace since Annapolis. Deputy assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs Robert Danin will lead Quartet envoy Tony Blair’s mission in improving the livelihood of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza. The US President did not mention how he intends to address the issue or compel Israel to abide by their road map obligations but merely informed the press that the Middle East is high on his agenda which is why he plans on going to the region. The incumbent US President will travel to Israel to celebrate in the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence and to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. The problem for Abbas is that there has been no meeting scheduled where all three leaders will be present. Abbas will not attend the anniversary celebrations in Israel and it is thought that Prime Minister Olmert will not attend the meeting at the Red Sea resort in Egypt.

While President Abbas was in Washington hoping to persuade the US to pressure Israel on their road map obligations, two Israeli guards were killed by a Palestinian gunman while screening Palestinian workers as they entered an Israeli factory in the Nitzanei Shalom industrial zone near the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem. Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades, Fateh’s al-Aqsa Brigades and Islamic Jihad’s al-Quds Brigades all claimed they were responsible for the gunman, who escaped from scene only slightly injured. PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki replied by asserting that the attack plans to “undermine the efforts by the Palestinian government to undertake full responsibilities in the West Bank”. Under the stipulations of the road map, President Abbas is charged with dismantling “terrorist” infrastructure in the West Bank and improving the general security of the area.

In other news, in a move which attempts to resolve part of the settlement issue in the West Bank, an Israeli law advocated by Israeli vice premier Haim Ramon has reported that nearly 50% of the 70,000 settlers in the 74 settlements east of the Separation Wall would agree to monetary compensation at a total buyout cost of $2.5 billion.

Controversy continues to surround the trip of former US President Jimmy Carter. The 2002 Nobel Prize laureate has denied that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice advised him not to speak to Hamas officials prior to his visit. Carter’s trip continues to receive mixed reviews. While former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan praised the former US President’s efforts this week to achieve peace between Hamas and Israel, President Abbas and US Presidential hopeful Barack Obama criticized his dialogue with Hamas, stating that the venture had been a failure.

On April 23, deputy ambassadors from France, the US, Britain, Belgium and Costa Rica walked out of a UN Security Council meeting when Libya’s deputy UN ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi compared the Israeli blockade of Gaza to the Nazi Holocaust. South African ambassador Dumisani Lumalo, who holds the council’s presidency, subsequently closed the discussion.

Also this week, Director of the Palestine Investment Conference Hassan Abu Libdeh revealed that the Bethlehem conference, which will take place on the 21-23 May and host 1200 Foreign and Arab investors, aims to raise $1.5 billion. $900 million is to go to the West Bank whereas the remaining $600 million will be allocated to Gaza but not while Hamas controls the coastal strip.

Human Rights Watch released a report this week which documented that Fadel Shana, the 23 year old Reuters cameraman who was killed in Gaza on April 16, was fired on by an Israeli tank either “recklessly or deliberately”. As a result of the report the Israeli army stated on April 20 that they would investigate his death.

Mariam Marouf [14] was killed on April 26 when Israeli soldiers exchanged fire with Palestinian activists while seizing her father and Hamas leader Hassan Marouf from his house in the town of Beit Lahiya in Gaza.

A Palestinian activist, whose identity has yet to have been released, was killed on April 23 when Israel launched an incursion into the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. A day earlier in northern Gaza, members of the Islamic Jihad military wing [al-Quds Brigades], Othman Abu Hajar [19], Fadi Salem [20] and Ibrahim Mahmud Shalash [19] were also killed during an Israeli incursion.

On April 20, eight Palestinians died in Gaza City during Israel’s continued reprisal following the explosion of two bomb laden vehicles disguised as Israeli military jeeps near the Kerem Shalom crossing on April 19.