December 2008 Israel News Review
December 2008 Israel News Review
Jerusalem - 12/22/2008
HAMAS ENDS THE TRUCE
By David Dolan
The ceasefire between Israel and the radical Palestinian Hamas group came to an official end on December 19 as more Kassam rockets were launched at Jewish civilian targets near the Gaza Strip. By the time the clock ran out, it had already become abundantly clear that Hamas leaders had been lying when they stated in late November that they wanted the truce to continue into next year. As the low level conflict further intensified, Israeli officials seemed to confirm media speculation that a large-scale Israeli military operation may be pending, designed to finally crush oppressive Hamas rule in the crowded coastal zone.
Meanwhile Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas indicated that he had changed his mind and is now ready to hold fresh PA presidential elections in early 2009. The vote could potentially bring a Hamas candidate to power-which would probably deal a final blow to faltering peace talks with Israel. Hamas insists that the PA leader's term in office expires in early January, but Abbas had resisted their demands that he hold new elections early in the new year. At the same time, outgoing American President George Bush claimed that significant progress is being made in the US-backed negotiations between Israel and the PA.
Israel continued to gear up during December for its own leadership contest, scheduled for February 10. Opinion surveys in all Israeli media outlets showed Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party widening its lead over the currently ruling Kadima party, and also over Ehud Barak's Labor party. With it now widely accepted that Netanyahu will most likely return to power next year, questions were increasingly raised as to what policy changes he might make in office, and especially whether or not he will pursue current peace negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria.
Diplomats from leading Western nations met with several of their Arab counterparts mid month to discuss growing Arab world fears that Iran will soon possess nuclear weapons. This came as the Israeli government sent a special envoy to Moscow to try and talk Russia out of selling Iran a new anti-aircraft missile system that could be used to destroy Israeli jets on a possible future mission to wipe out Tehran's threatening nuclear program. Air Force commanders also said they are considering purchasing a joint American-Australian system that could turn ordinary air launched bombs into "smart bombs," modified to strike enemy targets from a much safer distance.
ROCKETS MARK CEASEFIRE END
Dozens of Palestinian rockets were fired at Israeli civilian centers in the days before Hamas officially announced on December 19 that it was ending its ceasefire with Israel. In a statement posted on the Hamas website, the militant Muslim group claimed that Israel had breached all of the agreements that were part of the Egyptian-mediated truce, maintaining that Israel had "imposed a painful blockade" on the Gaza Strip, and staged illicit military strikes into the densely populated Palestinian coastal zone, while also continuing to target Hamas terrorists and rocket squads operating in Jordan's former West Bank north and south of Jerusalem.
The hostile Hamas statement added that "Since the enemy did not abide with the conditions, we hold the enemy fully responsible for ending the truce, and we confirm that the Palestinian resistance factions headed by Hamas will act."
Israeli analysts noted that the terrorist group had already been "acting" for well over one month, lobbing rockets on a daily basis since early November onto Israeli civilian centers and military bases located around the Gaza Strip, while also attempting to kidnap more Israeli soldiers. It was the latter abduction plot-featuring the digging of a new tunnel under the border fence designed to facilitate military kidnappings-which set off an Israeli military reaction in early November, giving Hamas and it allies an excuse to resume their shelling.
In the 24 hours after the Hamas statement was posted on the group's official website, a total of 13 rockets were fired into Israeli territory, including two that struck near the city of Ashkelon. No one was injured in the post ceasefire barrage, but some damage was reported. The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group said it had carried out the attacks, claiming that Hamas members were not involved. Israeli officials replied that even if this was the case, they still hold Hamas responsible for the rocket firings since the radical group controls the entire Gaza Strip and could easily halt the ongoing attacks if it actually wanted to.
WORLD RESPONSE TO THE TRUCE COLLAPSE
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reacted to the ceasefire suspension by voicing concern that it would negatively affect American-led attempts to secure a final Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty in the coming months.
"I sincerely hope that there will not be a resumption of the violence, because that is not going to help the people of Gaza," she told reporters in Washington DC, adding that "It is not going to help the Palestinians; and it is not going to help the Palestinian cause."
Marie Okabe, a spokesman for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, echoed the American diplomat's comments, saying that "a major escalation of violence would have grave consequences for the protection of civilians in Israel and Gaza, the welfare of the Gazan civilian population, and the sustainability of political efforts to secure a peace treaty."
The first Israeli government reaction to the Hamas website announcement-which was immediately followed by the firing of four Kassam rockets into Israel and sniper attacks upon Israeli troops stationed in the vicinity-came from National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer. The well respected former Israeli defense minister and armed forces chief of staff made his comments during a public conference in Tel Aviv.
The cabinet minister warned that "the IDF will deploy all its power" to put a final halt to all Hamas rocket and mortar firings out of the Gaza Strip. "From our point of view when the truce ended, it ended, and the IDF will operate with all its power in order to eradicate the fire," Eliezer stated, adding forcefully that "There is a limit to what Israel is able to accept." After more rocket attacks were launched the following day, Israeli officials indicated that a large scale military response may indeed be pending.
IS ANOTHER MAJOR CONFLICT ON THE HORIZON?
Analysts noted that the goal spelled out by Binyamin Ben Eliezerr-which seems to be backed by the entire cabinet and most opposition political parties-can only be fully achieved if a major IDF air and ground campaign is launched. It would be designed to basically reverse the Hamas June 2007 coup that ousted local Palestinian Authority political and security agents from the Gaza Strip. To accomplish this difficult goal, the estimated 20,000 plus heavily armed and trained Hamas militia force would need to be neutralized-meaning a fairly significant conflict could be in the offing.
Still, most Israeli analysts pointed out that now is not exactly the ideal time politically in Israel for such a massive military campaign, given that national elections are scheduled for less than two months away. They noted official estimates that a substantial IDF operation could produce Israeli military casualties rivaling those of the 2006 summer war with Hizbullah forces in Lebanon, and might even spark another massive armed reaction from Hizbullah, and possibly even from Syria, where the overall Hamas political leadership is stationed.
With this as the real world background, Israel's current governmental leaders-still headed by disgraced Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who came under harsh reprobation for his handling of the Second Lebanon War-will think twice or three times before ordering their military forces into harms way.
Yet the final decision may be almost entirely in the hands of Hamas leaders, most political analysts point out. The ruling Kadima party's new standard bearer, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is loath to appear weak and indecisive in the face of escalating Palestinian rocket and mortar fire upon shell shocked weary Israeli citizens (read voters) in the beleaguered cites of Sderot, Ashkelon and elsewhere. This holds true as well for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labor party is doing poorly in all pre-election opinion polls. As the man most responsible for Israel's military reactions to the intensified rocket attacks and warlike Hamas rhetoric, the former premier can hardly sit idly by just before voters head to the election booths, and all this while hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians are forced once again to rush to bomb shelters in the gloom of Israel's cold and rainy winter months.
In light of these realities, many analysts conclude that while this is hardly an opportune time for a massive military campaign designed to basically uproot Hamas from the Gaza Strip, it might prove to be unavoidable if the radical group continues to allow wanton rocket attacks upon Israeli civilian centers.
HIZBULLAH CHIMES IN
Right on cue, Shiite Muslim Hizbullah leaders staged a huge rally in the southern suburbs of Beirut in support of Hamas just hours after the ceasefire termination was announced by the extremist Sunni Muslim group. Roaming clerics led thousands of demonstrators in the usual chants of "Death to America" and "Israel is the enemy of all Muslims."
The mass rally was addressed by Hizbullah's deputy "spiritual leader" Sheik Naim Kassem, who was apparently filling in for overall leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah who fears he will be killed by Israeli rockets if he appears in public. Kassem called upon all Arab and Islamic nations to "band together" to insist that the Israeli-imposed economic blockade of the Gaza Strip-enacted earlier this year in an apparently failed attempt to halt the rocket fire-be immediately lifted.
Hizbullah staged a similar rally at the same hour in the southern Lebanese coastal town of Sidon, where thousands of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars and their offspring reside. A third demonstration was held at a Palestinian neighborhood in the southern outskirts of Damascus.
Hamas official Sami Abu Zouhdi participated in the anti-Israel rally in Syria, where he warned that any IDF military operation inside the Gaza Strip would provoke "a tough response" from Hamas fighters. He also indirectly threatened Egypt for basically adhering to the Israeli blockade, saying the protestors in Syria and Lebanon were "sending a message of rage to everyone contributing to the Gaza blockade", which analysts said was a clear reference to Egypt.
FAREWELL MEETING BETWEEN BUSH AND ABBAS
With only one month left in office, US President George W. Bush hosted Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on December 19. Bush praised Abbas for his efforts to seal an accord with Israel while acknowledging that the road to peace is a difficult one to navigate. Still, he averred that the US-backed peace process had moved forward during the year.
"No question, this is a hard challenge," said the outgoing American leader while sitting in his oval office next to Abbas. "But nevertheless, people must recognize that we have made a good deal of progress." The Palestinian leader agreed with the optimistic assessment, saying that "Some might say that all these efforts perhaps were in vain. I happen to disagree."
In fact, the two leaders spoke just as the ceasefire was ending between Hamas and Israel-signaling anything but peace just ahead. Besides that portentous coincidence, many Israeli commentators pointed out that none of the goals spelled out by Bush, Abbas and Ehud Olmert when the current round of talks began at the end of 2007 have been achieved, especially the signing by the end of 2008 of a framework peace accord designed to formally end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establish a Palestinian state inside of Jordan's former West Bank and the Gaza Strip. With all three politicians leaving their leadership positions in the coming months, such a treaty seems to be nowhere in the offing.
Nevertheless, Abbas praised President Bush for his peace efforts, even if they have not produced results in the time frame put forward when the negotiations were launched at a peace conference in Maryland in November 2007. "There is no doubt that we will always remember the efforts that you undertook to promote the peace process," he told the US leader while television cameras were rolling, adding that the Israeli-Palestinian talks are "not just a slogan or a rhetorical commitment. We are practically committed to the peace process, and we are confident all these efforts will be transferred to the new administration."
The winding up Bush administration sought to bolster its peace efforts by getting them officially endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, which happened just days before the President hosted Abbas at the White House. Bush hailed the move as confirming his decision "to follow a path to a Palestinian state, and a path to peace in the Middle East." The Security Council passed a resolution describing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, designed "to establish as soon as possible the state of Palestine" as "irreversible," meaning it should be upheld by the incoming Obama administration, which is pretty much a given, and by the next Israeli and Palestinian leaders-a far less certain prospect.
For one thing, it became clear during December that Mahmoud Abbas might not be the PA chief for very much longer. Hamas had insisted for many months that according to its reading of Palestinian laws, his official term in office ends next January 8. Aids to Abbas had argued that the Palestinian parliament approved emergency legislation in late 2005 which legally extended the date for the next presidential election by one year, or into early 2010. Hamas officials countered that argument by noting that the extension was subsequently cancelled after Hamas won a majority of legislative seats in January 2006.
After indicating during most of 2008 that he would remain in power without a fresh electoral endorsement during all of next year, Abbas announced just before he journeyed to America that he would call new Palestinian elections "very soon." Hamas has indicated that ousted PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh may seek to be elected PA president if a new Palestinian leadership vote is held, with Palestinian opinion polls showing he has a fair chance of succeeding if he does so.
However Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum threw another spanner into the works on December 16 when he said his group opposes holding elections in the coming weeks since the harrowing rift created between the Fatah-dominated PA and his Islamist movement after Hamas violently seized control over the Gaza Strip has not been closed. Analysts warn that Hamas may block all voting in the Gaza Strip in an effort to call into the question the legitimacy of any election that Abbas or another Fatah candidate seems likely to win.
NETANYAHU AND PEACE
It is becoming increasingly clear that Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu will be Israel's next prime minister-returning to the post he held from mid 1996 until Ehud Barak defeated him in an election held in May 1999. All media public opinion surveys showed his party gaining further strength against the ruling Kadima party headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who began her political career in the Likud party. Defense Minister Barak's Labor party is currently projected to win fewer seats than five other parties, meaning the powerhouse that dominated Israeli politics for over 30 years might become a virtual has been.
The question of where Netanyahu will stand on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and indirect Turkish-mediated negotiations going on with Syria become a hot topic of discussion on Israeli radio and television programs during December, along with the print media. Netanyahu eventually answered it himself, telling various European diplomats that he would carry on talking to the Palestinian Authority, but would put greater stress on certain security positions. Press reports said the conservative Likud leader plans to demand that any Palestinian state be totally demilitarized, with Israeli air force jets maintaining the right to patrol over it. Defense analysts say this is vital to prevent a threatening Hamas-ruled Islamic state arising on Israel's doorstep.
Netanyahu also reportedly wants to maintain the present Jordan Valley security buffer zone which runs along the border fence with Jordan and is regularly patrolled by army forces. Analysts say this latter position is also very important in that it would make it far more difficult for any future Palestinian state to be taken over by Hamas and then merge with Jordan after ousting the Hashemite regime currently ruling there.
Concerning Syria, Netanyahu made clear in December that he will halt the indirect talks. He said it was premature to negotiate with the Assad regime while it continues to host Hamas leaders in Damascus. This came as the Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed senior Syrian official as confirming that his government wants to gain legal control over the northeast shoreline of the Sea of Galilee-the same demand that derailed American-brokered peace talks in early 2000.
With a possible new major conflict looming in the Gaza Strip, Israeli leaders stressed yet once more that they prefer negotiations instead of more violence. But if Palestinian rocket attacks continue to escalate, they stressed that they are ready for action if necessary. The Lord God of Israel has promised that if the people and leaders of Israel will simply " walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts. (.Zechariah 3:7).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.