End the siege of Gaza
Azzam Tamimi, The Guardian. Nov 21, 2008
For five months, until the first week of November, the Gaza Strip and its neighbouring Israeli towns to the north and the east enjoyed unprecedented peace that was the product of the hudna, or truce, agreed between Hamas and Israel through Egyptian mediation. Despite the continuation of the siege that denied the population of Gaza much of what other people around the world may consider life necessities, men, women and children could walk the streets of the Strip without fear and spend hours of their free time enjoying the beach. On the other side of the divide, Israel saw tourism flourish.
Then, suddenly, the Israeli government decided to authorise the army to act against perceived threats within what it calls the "security parameter" - a several hundred-metre strip beyond the border between Gaza and Israel.
On November 4 the Israeli army penetrated Gaza, killing six Hamas officers under the pretext of having discovered a tunnel close to the Kisufim roadblock. Since then, and despite statements made by spokespeople on both sides that they still wished to observe the hudna, Israel forces have crossed the border several times and Hamas, joined later by other Palestinian factions, resumed shelling nearby Israeli towns.
Why did Israeli politicians feel the need to end the peace despite the benefits reaped? Though they blamed Hamas for starting the violence, not a single rocket had been fired by Hamas from the inception of the hudna to the raid on Gaza.
The Israeli military escalation has been accompanied by a further tightening of the siege of Gaza in what can only be seen as another attempt to press the population to turn on Hamas. The Israelis seem to cling to a vain hope that the people of the besieged Strip might blame their elected leaders. Clearly, there is no sign of this happening. The reality, however, is that the sanctions have only bolstered the popularity of the movement among Palestinians and support for the cause around the world.
These tactics have been tried before. Military incursions into Gaza have indeed wrought heavy losses among Palestinians, but the Israelis suffered losses, too, and eventually had to withdraw, leaving an embittered population and a strengthened Hamas movement. Attempts at targeted killings of Hamas leaders did no better. Making martyrs of Palestinian symbols of resistance and defiance can only ever fuel rage. For more than two years the Israeli state, fortified by an unhinged US-led world order, have tried collectively punishing the Palestinians for supporting Hamas. That strategy has only backfired.
Hamas has made its position clear. As Mahmud al-Zahar, a co-founder of the movement, emphasised in a recent TV appearance on the London-based Alhiwar Arabic TV channel, Hamas is willing to abide by the hudna if Israel shows a similar commitment. It would be in the interest of both parties to renew the truce, which is expected to expire next month. However, it should this time involve an end to the siege.
A prisoner-exchange deal before the year end would be a great boost for peace and stability. In exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit, Hamas is asking for the release of 1,000 of its captive men, plus all the women and children, and the parliamentarians and ministers kidnapped in the aftermath of Shalit's capture. With more than 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention, Hamas is not asking for much. Israeli decision-makers should take seriously the warning by Hamas leaders that should Israel opt to go to war they are fully prepared to engage it; instead, they should grasp a chance to build peace.
• Azzam Tamimi is director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought, author of Hamas: Unwritten Chapters and has advised Hamas on media strategy
• This article was amended on Friday November 21 2008. We specified a reference to Hamas in paragraph four.