WASHINGTON, Jan 9 (IPS) - Contrary to Israel's argument that it was forced to launch its air and ground offensive against Gaza in order to stop the firing of rockets into its territory, Hamas proposed in mid-December to return to the original Hamas-Israel ceasefire arrangement, according to a U.S.-based source who has been briefed on the proposal.
The proposal to renew the ceasefire was presented by a high-level Hamas delegation to Egyptian Minister of Intelligence Omar Suleiman at a meeting in Cairo Dec. 14. The delegation, said to have included Moussa Abu Marzouk, the second-ranking official in the Hamas political bureau in Damascus, told Suleiman that Hamas was prepared to stop all rocket attacks against Israel if the Israelis would open up the Gaza border crossings and pledge not to launch attacks in Gaza.
The Hamas officials insisted that Israel not be allowed to close or reduce commercial traffic through border crossings for political purposes, as it had done during the six-month lull, according to the source. They asked Suleiman, who had served as mediator between Israel and Hamas in negotiating the original six-month Gaza ceasefire last spring, to "put pressure" on Israel to take that the ceasefire proposal seriously.
Suleiman said he could not pressure Israel but could only make the suggestion to Israeli officials. It could not be learned, however, whether Israel explicitly rejected the Hamas proposal or simply refused to respond to Egypt.
The readiness of Hamas to return to the ceasefire conditionally in mid-December was confirmed by Dr. Robert Pastor, a professor at American University and senior adviser to the Carter Centre, who met with Khaled Meshal, chairman of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus on Dec. 14, along with former President Jimmy Carter. Pastor told IPS that Meshal indicated Hamas was willing to go back to the ceasefire that had been in effect up to early November "if there was a sign that Israel would lift the siege on Gaza".
Pastor said he passed Meshal's statement on to a "senior official" in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) the day after the meeting with Meshal. According to Pastor, the Israeli official said he would get back to him, but did not.
"There was an alternative to the military approach to stopping the rockets," said Pastor. He added that Israel is unlikely to have an effective ceasefire in Gaza unless it agrees to lift the siege.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment Thursday on whether there had been any discussion of a ceasefire proposal from Hamas in mid-December that would have stopped the rocket firing.
Abu Omar, a spokesman for Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Syria, told CBS news Wednesday that Hamas could only accept the ceasefire plan now being proposed by France and Egypt, which guarantees an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza as soon as hostilities on both sides were halted. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel would only support the proposal if it also included measures to prevent Hamas from re-arming.
The interest of Hamas in a ceasefire agreement that would actually open the border crossings was acknowledged at a Dec. 21 Israeli cabinet meeting -- five days before the beginning of the Israeli military offensive -- by Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet. "Make no mistake, Hamas is interested in maintaining the truce," Diskin was quoted by Y-net News agency as saying.
Israel's rejection of the Hamas December proposal reflected its preference for maintaining Israel's primary leverage over Hamas and the Palestinian population of Gaza -- its ability to choke off food and goods required for the viability of its economy -- even at the cost of continued Palestinian rocket attacks.
The ceasefire agreement that went into effect Jun. 19, 2008 required that Israel lift the virtual siege of Gaza which Israel had imposed after the June 2007 Hamas takeover. Although the terms of the agreement were not made public at the time, they were included in a report published this week by the International Crisis Group (ICG), which obtained a copy of the understanding last June.
In addition to a halt in all military actions by both sides, the agreement called on Israel to increase the level of goods entering Gaza by 30 percent over the pre-lull period within 72 hours and to open all border crossings and "allow the transfer of all goods that were banned and restricted to go into Gaza" within 13 days after the beginning of the ceasefire.
Nevertheless, Israeli officials freely acknowledged in interviews with ICG last June that they had no intention of opening the border crossings fully, even though they anticipated that this would be the source of serious conflict with Hamas.
The Israelis opened the access points only partially, and in late July Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni declared that the border crossings should remain closed until Hamas agreed to the release of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier abducted by Hamas in June 2006. The Hamas representative in Lebanon, Usam Hamdan, told the ICG in late December that the flow of goods and fuel into Gaza had been only 15 percent of its basic needs.
Despite Israel's refusal to end the siege, Hamas brought rocket and mortar fire from Gaza to a virtual halt last summer and fall, as revealed by a report by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) in Tel Aviv last month. ITIC is part of the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Centre (IICC), an NGO which is close to the Israeli intelligence community.
In the first days after the ceasefire took effect, Islamic Jihad fired nine rockets and a few mortar rounds in retaliation for Israeli assassinations of their members in the West Bank. In August another eight rockets were fired by various groups, according to IDF data cited in the report. But it shows that only one rocket was launched from Gaza in September and one in October.
The report recalls that Hamas "tried to enforce the terms of the arrangement" on other Palestinian groups, taking "a number of steps against networks which violated the arrangement," including short-term detention and confiscating their weapons. It even found that Hamas had sought support in Gazan public opinion for its policy of maintaining the ceasefire.
On Nov. 4 -- just when the ceasefire was most effective -- the IDF carried out an attack against a house in Gaza in which six members of Hamas's military wing were killed, including two commanders, and several more were wounded. The IDF explanation for the operation was that it had received intelligence that a tunnel was being dug near the Israeli security fence for the purpose of abducing Israeli soldiers.
Hamas officials asserted, however, that the tunnel was being dug for defensive purposes, not to capture IDF personnel, according to Pastor, and one IDF official confirmed that fact to him.
After that Israeli attack, the ceasefire completely fell apart, as Hamas began openly firing rockets into Israel, the IDF continued to carry out military operations inside Gaza, and the border crossings were "closed most of the time", according to the ITIC account.
Israel cited the firing of 190 rockets over six weeks as the justification for its massive attack on Gaza.
*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.
Read more stories from Inter Press Service.
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