Thursday June 19, 2008, may well go down as one of the pivotal moments in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the Egypt-brokered negotiations resulting in an agreement by both Israel and Hamas to cease hostilities comes into effect.
So do we start jumping for joy in anticipation of a future lasting peace deal and an end to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza? Or is it yet another false victory in a conflict littered with them?
The truce is designed to last for six months but in an ominous sign, an Israeli missile strike killed one Palestinian militant and wounded three others near the Gaza border, just one hour before the truce came into effect.
This strike was in retaliation for some 40 rockets that were fired into Israel from Gaza on Wednesday, June 18, by the Islamic Jihad (IJ). But continuing the tit-for-tat rhetoric that has characterised this conflict, IJ, which claimed responsibility for the bulk of the attacks, insisted that they were simply avenging Israeli strikes that killed 10 of their militants in the preceding two days.
Ehud Olmert has warned that the truce would be a “fragile one”, which does not suggest much faith in their success, and one wonders whether Hamas will be capable of convincing all militant groups such as IJ, to stick with the ceasefire. The biggest obstacle facing Hamas is the fact that Israel considers it responsible for all activity in Gaza and thus will bear the responsibility if any militant groups violate the truce. JI has stated it would abide by the truce but would not hesitate in reacting, should Israel violate its terms.
It is also worth noting here that the last ceasefire, which came into effect in November 2006, took all of a few weeks to unravel. For their part, each side is stating their commitment to the truce while expressing scepticism over the others. Says Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri: “We in Hamas are committed to this calm and are interested in making it succeed … the ball is now in Israel's court."
And Ehud Olmert: "I hope it will succeed. I believe there will be quiet in (Israel's) south." But Olmert has, nonetheless instructed the Israeli military to "to prepare for any operation, short or long, that might be necessary" should Hamas violate the terms of the truce.
In a BBC interview Olmert added, “Quite frankly I don't think that in the essence of what Hamas is all about, that they are likely to change their attitude … they are set to destroy Israel. That is what they say."
While the BBC announced, on June 20, that the “fragile” ceasefire has held on its first day, the long-term prospects are grim.
The success of the truce could well hinge on three factors, the loosening of the Gaza blockade which will allow vital supplies to reach the devastated population, peaceful activity in the West Bank (which does not fall under the truce) and the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas since June 2006. The deaths of two Palestinians in the West Bank on Monday and the subsequent rocket attacks on Israel on Tuesday may spell disaster for the citizens in Gaza who where looking forward to the easing of Israeli sanctions.
First, the West Bank continues to be a hot spot. The recent announcements by Israel of its intentions to build yet more new settlements in the occupied territory has been met with fury by the Palestinians and resignation by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who said, "Unfortunately, I do believe, and the United States believes, that the actions and the announcements that are taking place are indeed having a negative effect on the atmosphere for negotiations … I don't expect, frankly, any blinding breakthroughs."
Clashes between settlers and Palestinian villagers are common and one attack upon two elderly farmers by four settler youths, which was caught on camera, has caused uproar.
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