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Prelude to War By: Michael Widlanski
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, November 28, 2006


JERUSALEM - Israel and the Palestinians pulled back from full-scale war in Gaza on Sunday (Nov. 26), agreeing to a “ceasefire” agreement that officials here say may end up being nothing less than a prelude to full war.

The various heads of Israeli military and domestic intelligence have been warning that Palestinian terrorists are keen to attack in the spring or summer in tandem with Iranian-supported Hizballah units from Lebanon, where Israel fought this summer. Meanwhile, continuing Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel hint at an unstable ceasefire.

“By nature and political belief, I’m an optimist and want to believe in peace with our neighbors, but I have to be a realist,” remarked Daniel Gigi, standing amid the ruins of his living room, which was hit by a Palestinian Qassam rocket.

 

Ten Palestinian Qassam rockets were fired at Israel Sunday morning and several more on Monday —some by Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists and some by members of the Fatah organization run by Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) with whom Israeli Prime Minister Olmert negotiated.

 

I extend my hand in peace to our Palestinian neighbors, hoping that it will not be rejected,” declared Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday, asserting that he would not be deterred by what he sees as small violations of the ceasefire.

 

Prime Minister Olmert, speaking at the graveside of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, implicitly compared himself and his peace efforts to Ben Gurion, saying, “Already at the time of Israel's birth, Ben-Gurion extended his hand in peace to the Arab nations.  His hand was rejected, but it remains extended.”

 

While Olmert compared himself to Israel’s founding prime minister, his public standing and poll approval ratings are the lowest of any in Israel’s history, with two-thirds of the population regularly stating that he is doing a bad job and should resign.

 

Many Israelis seem confused about the ceasefire and what it may mean — some thinking it a reflexive diplomatic maneuver by an Israeli government that has been in crisis for four months and is trying to survive, while others feel it is the beginning of a major Israeli policy shift.

 

“What we are seeing here is beginning a major diplomatic deal and the beginning of Israeli recognition of Hamas,” observed Alon Ben-David, military correspondent for Israel Television Channel 10. Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot newspaper suggested Olmert was trying to broker a new combined Gaza-West Bank withdrawal.

 

Olmert himself has tried to sell the present agreement as a firm Palestinian Authority (PA) commitment to stop weapons from flowing into Gaza from Sinai in hundreds of smuggling tunnels, but the PA has never done so before, and it does not seem likely it will begin now.

 

Indeed, Mushir Al-Masri, a spokesman for Hamas declared yesterday that his organization had not promised to stop smuggling or making weapons or building fortifications, and several other organizations said they would not desist as well.

 

“At least four Palestinian groups aligned with the Hamas-led PA said they won’t honor the ceasefire,” observed Steve Rodan, the Arabic-speaking director of Middle East Newsline (http://menewsline.com/). “They include the Popular Resistance Committees, Islamic Jihad, Islamic Army and the Abu Rish Brigades of Fatah.”

 

Rodan noted that PLO Chairman Abbas has himself has said many times that he would “not start a civil war” by trying to disarm Palestinians.

 

Rodan and other observers here suggest that the visit to the region this week by U.S. President George Bush, scheduled to arrive in Amman on Thursday (Nov. 30) was the real reason that Olmert and Abbas announced their agreement, but it is not clear if the truce—tahdiyya in Arabic—would last much longer than the Bush visit.

 

The future of the ceasefire is unclear also because Olmert says it means one thing, while the various Palestinian factional leaders claim it means something else:

 

• Olmert and his aides said it means an end to Palestinian terror attacks and war preparations in Gaza in return for Israeli withdrawal and ceasefire there;

 

• Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Hanniye of Hamas says it means Israel will stop attacking Palestinian terrorists and their bases in the West Bank, while it does not mean that terrorists must stop weapons smuggling.

 

“We are one people on one land, and Israel must stop its aggression against us,” declared Hanniye, stressing Hamas’s demand that Israel suspend manhunts against Hamas bombers and weapons smugglers in the West Bank, where Israel’s tough policy has virtually eliminated most major Palestinian attacks.

 

Before the ceasefire, top officials of Israel’s army (IDF) and its Shin Bet counter-terror intelligence agency pushed for a pre-emptive Israeli invasion of Gaza to stop rocket attacks, weapons flow and fortification building by terror groups. But, as in Lebanon this summer, Mr. Olmert pulled back from full combat at the last minute.

 

“Even though there are still violations of the ceasefire by the Palestinian side, I have instructed our defense officials not to respond, to show restraint, and to give this ceasefire a chance to take full effect,” declared the Israeli prime minister yesterday.

 

“I took into account the fact that a cease-fire is not something which is fully implemented immediately, without any violations. I nevertheless asked the Minister of Defense to instruct the IDF to withdraw,” continued Olmert.

 

His words were echoed by Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who has feuded with Olmert publicly about who would take credit for achieving a ceasefire with PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who worked to broker a deal with Islamic terror organizations Hamas, Islamic Jihad and units of his own Fatah.

 

Israeli and Palestinian confidence in the ceasefire is not high because PLO leader Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) is considered a weak figure-head not respected by Hamas or Jihad, and because he had failed to make such deal for months.

 

Public confidence in Israel’s leadership is also at record low levels because the public feuding between Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and others has been a constant feature since Israel’s defensive war in Lebanon a few months ago. Indeed, the only other Israeli cabinet minister who wholeheartedly blessed this week’s ceasefire was Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the primary author of the failed set of historic agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, known as “The Olso Accords.”

 

“Fire is an absolute, while ceasefires are never absolute,” declared Peres, supporting Olmert’s call for restraint.

 

But in the Israeli southern border town of Sderot, which has been hit by five to ten Palestinian Qassam rockets a day, inhabitants have been calling for a full military response. As many as a third of the 30,000 residents of the besieged city have left their homes.

 

For the last two months, polls by newspapers Ma’ariv and Yediot, as well as Israel Television Channels 2 and 10, all show that between 70 to 85 percent of the public feel that neither Prime Minister Olmert nor Defense Peretz is fit for their top leadership positions and that they mishandled the summer’s fighting in Lebanon.

 

Many other members of the Israeli cabinet say they are not optimistic about the ceasefire’s chances for success, but they have not publicly criticized Olmert because under Israeli law he can fire them from the cabinet.

 

Internal Security Minister Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security agency, has been urging a full Israeli takeover of Gaza. Meanwhile, Minister Rafi Eitan, a veteran of the Mossad overseas intelligence agency, said Hamas and Islamic Jihad would probably tempter their attacks for two months while rearming and fortifying.

 

Yuval Diskin, the current head of the Shin Bet, warned the cabinet two weeks ago that “the situation is a red light situation for terror,” citing the movement into Gaza of 33 tons of high-grade explosives, anti-tank and anti-air-craft missiles and thousands of rounds of ammunition within the last year, since Israel’s major withdrawal.

 

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, IDF Intelligence Chief Amos Harel and IDF Southern Commander Yaakov Galant have each warned the Israeli government that the longer it waits to attack Hamas, the greater the civilian casualties and military losses Israel will bear. That is because Hamas and Islamic Jihad are constantly improving the weapons grade of their Qassam rockets which now have more than a 12-kilometer range and whose warheads are now larger and packed with military grade explosives, some supplied directly by Iran.

 

Israel has pulled back several times from a full strike into Gaza, most recently after an IDF artillery shell accidentally killed an entire family of more than 20—not involved in attacks on Israel—in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. This has forced Israel to go back to using piecemeal high-precision air strikes or snipers. Even so, this has not stopped the rocket attacks, and Israeli field commanders have even tried telephoning or leafleting warnings to neighborhoods where they intend to attack terrorists—something that is exploited by Hamas and Jihad.

 

Hamas and Islamic Jihad gunners and smugglers have declared openly that they will use non-combatant Palestinian civilians as human shields to protect their activities.

 

More than 20 such Arab terrorists were saved from Israeli retribution on Nov 3 when they hid out in the Al-Nasr Mosque in Beit Hanoun and were smuggled out in women’s clothing in a throng of Palestinian women.  The move was hailed by PLO Chairman Abbas and PA Prime Minister Ismail Hanniye.

 

A similar event took place on November 18 in the Jabalya Refugee Camp when a crowd protected the home of terrorist Muhammad Baroud from an Israeli airstrike.

 

“Palestinians will defend operatives with their bodies and souls. From now on we will be not permit Israel to attack any house belonging to a jihad fighter,” declared Sheik Nizar Rayan on PA official television on November 19.

 

Sheikh Rayan and other PA and Hamas officials have bragged several times in recent days that they will use human shields and continue to use women and children as bombers and weapons smugglers. And they have carried out their promise several times. For example, a 57-year-old Palestinian woman, wearing an explosive belt underneath her clothes, blew herself up near an Israeli army patrol last week, and she was called  a “heroic martyr” label in all the Palestinian media, including the radio and television outlets directly run by PLO and PA Chairman Abbas.

 

“When Fatah activists heard that a … house  was about to be attacked, they rushed there to defend the building with their bodies. In the same way, they will provide a human shield [in the future as well] for buildings [used by] jihad fighters,” delared Salah Abu Warda, a senior Fatah official on PA televison on November 19.

 

The violent anti-Israel sentiment among Abbas’s own PA police and his own Fatah operatives may be the biggest obstacle to a real Palestinian-Israeli entente.

 

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Dr. Michael Widlanski is a specialist in Arab politics and communication whose doctorate dealt with the Palestinian broadcast media. He is a former reporter, correspondent and editor, respectively, at The New York Times, The Cox Newspapers-Atlanta Constitution, and The Jerusalem Post. He has also served as a special advisor to Israeli delegations to peace talks in 1991-1992 and as Strategic Affairs Advisor to the Ministry of Public Security, editing secret PLO Archives captured in Jerusalem.


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