Ceasefire talks gain steam, but outcome uncertain

Israeli diplomat Amos Gilad traveled to Cairo to discuss an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire plan after Hamas spokesman Salah al-Bardawil (photo) said his group accepted the plan's "broad outlines". But observers say chances for peace are slim.


After weeks of stalwart and surging violence, an Egyptian-mediated plan to end the deadly fighting in the Gaza strip seems to be making some headway in negotiations between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, with senior Israeli official Amos Gilad in Cairo to hear Hamas’ “vision” for a ceasefire. The outcome, however, is far from certain.

At first glance, Israel’s and Hamas’ conditions for peace in the coastal strip seem impossible to reconcile. Israel has made it clear that it will not end its offensive unless there is a complete halt on rocket fire from Gaza against southern Israel, which Hamas has showed no sign of slowing down. In the longer term, the Jewish state wants international guarantees that an effective mechanism will be created to end arms smuggling into the territory from Egypt.

As for Hamas, it insists on an end to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, in effect since the Islamists seized the territory in June 2007, and an opening up of crossing points to normal traffic. The latter demand was the main point of contention in indirect talks between Hamas and Israel last year, pushing the Islamist group to end a six-month truce on December 19 and leading to the current Israeli onslaught.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s plan, developed with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and launched on January 6, calls for an "immediate ceasefire and acceptance of withdrawal" of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, with a gradual pullout. Meanwhile, it requires talks to determine the conditions of a re-opening of Gaza checkpoints, and considers the possibility of foreign observers (but not troops) along the Egypt-Gaza border to prevent rampant arms smuggling.

Although Egypt firmly rejects the presence of an eventual foreign force on its territory, an Egyptian diplomatic source told the press agency AFP that “there’s a possibility of overcoming [the problem of arms smuggling] without an international force” by which Egypt could undertake to make “constant and serious efforts” on the border. The US and Germany have offered expertise and equipment to detect the tunnels, and a memorandum of understanding between the US and Israel on security and intelligence cooperation aimed at countering arms smuggling may reportedly be signed as early as Friday.

Is Hamas breaking?

The Israeli media see Hamas spokesman Salah al-Bardwil’s statement on Wednesday that his group accepted the Mubarak plan’s "broad outline" as a sign that the Islamist group is finally breaking under an intensely violent offensive. Some observers also see signs of an ideological split between Hamas' division in Syria led by Khaled Meshaal, which is generally less open to a truce, and the Islamist group's main organ in Gaza led by Ismail Haneya.  

For French Middle-East specialist Sophie Pommier, an analyst at Grenobles-based consulting firm BD, nothing could be further from the truth. “Israel is eons away from its goal of breaking Hamas. On the contrary, the group now seems to many like the only true voice of Palestinian resistance, given Fatah’s virtual nonexistence throughout the entire conflict,” Pommier told FRANCE 24.

“At this point any statement from either side is mostly tactical, and has to be considered prudently. Of course they can’t just let the people of Gaza suffer indefinitely, but neither side is really ready to lower its arms,” says Pommier, pointing out that from the statements made by Hamas it is still not quite clear what they are agreeing to - or whether or not they are standing by their demands. “Clearly, they still want negotiations to lead to the end of the Israeli blockade on Gaza”, she says.

Similarly, Israel has said it would not agree to a truce that would allow Palestinian Islamists to regroup and rearm. “We are keeping up the military pressure on the Hamas military machine," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, adding that “at the same time [the Israeli delegation in Cairo] is discussing the parameters of the end game which we want to see as soon as possible.”

Since Israel unleashed its Operation Cast Lead on December 27, at least 1,065 people have been killed and another 5,000 wounded in Gaza, according to Gaza medics. Among the dead are at least 355 children, 100 women, 117 elderly men and 12 medics, they say.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and three civilians have died as a result of combat or rocket fire.


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