Facing The Abyss
In the search for a solution to the present impasse between Israel and Hamas, one has to establish what actually precipitated the crisis. The killing of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of Corporal Guilad Shalit in a daring attack on an Israeli military post has become a symbol of Palestinian defiance of Israel’s military might. But to the Israelis, these were acts of wanton terror coming on the heels of sustained rocket barrages from Gaza, which Israel fully evacuated a year ago. Both sides have now charted a path that can lead only to the abyss unless, as a matter of principle, they end hostilities.
Although Israel’s incursion into Gaza was ostensibly undertaken to free Corporal Shalit, the real goal was to end the relentless firing of the Qassam rockets, and in the process capture or kill any known terrorists; Israel also sought to destroy the Palestinian militant’s infrastructure. The situation has been further complicated because Israel has given Hamas time, after its election victory, to adjust to the political reality of being in control of the government, only to discover through Shalit’s abduction how Hamas’s political wing has no control over its military wing. Thus Israel now believes that, as a government, Hamas is directly involved in acts of terror. Consequently, Israel has decided to undermine Hamas as the governing authority, which makes any compromise, including an exchange of prisoners, most unlikely. Moreover, the discovery that Palestinian militants have fired a two-engine, improved rocket capable of reaching Israel’s urban centers has raised tensions, making further Israeli incursions all but certain. The prospect of Shalit’s unconditional release, which, on the surface, seems as if it could satisfy the Israelis, appears less and less likely. And the longer the stand-off, the more hardened the positions of both sides become, making it increasingly difficult to find a face-saving way out.
To end the stand-off, which could escalate to a full-blown invasion of Gaza, regardless of Israel’s reluctance to take this step, both sides need to find a “strategic retreat” without appearing to lose ground. For this reason, focusing on Shalit’s release will not produce a longer-term solution acceptable to both sides. The problem has been, and continues to be, the constant firing from Gaza at Israeli targets and Israel’s retaliatory attacks, coupled with targeted killing of wanted Palestinian militants. Based on my numerous conversations with individuals involved in the search for a solution, agreeing to a comprehensive enforceable ceasefire to which both sides must fully adhere, is the only way out that could eventually lead to a mutual accommodation, including the release of both Shalit and some Palestinian prisoners. Mutual cessation of hostilities as a first step, which both sides could agree to without necessarily loosing face, will be easier to accept than meeting demands that neither can deliver without appearing to have given in, or, as the Palestinians put it, “surrendered.”
Because of fears of Israeli retaliation, there seem to be an increasing feeling in Damascus, which has already exacted all it can from the present impasse (thwarting for now the prospects for any negotiation between Israel the Palestinian authority), that the sooner the conflict is contained the less likely it will be for Israel to take punitive action against Syria. This explains why Syria’s President Bashar el-Assad, who vowed to support the Palestinian cause and provides refuge to Hamas political leader Khalid Mashal, has been trying to disassociate Damascus from any direct involvement. The Israeli message to Damascus was clear: Syria cannot precipitate violence and instability with impunity. It is obvious that Damascus has no stomach for a military confrontation with Israel. Turkey, which continues to play an important behind-the-scenes-role, is best positioned to mediate a ceasefire, perhaps in conjunction with Egypt. Turkey should focus on Hamas and its political leadership inside and outside the territories, while Egypt should focus on Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah organization. Egypt and Turkey would thus compliment each other’s joint efforts to arrange for a comprehensive ceasefire.
There are those who suggest that neither Hamas nor the other Palestinian militant groups, such as the Army of Islam or Islamic Jihad, are interested in any peaceful arrangement with Israel. The suffering of the Palestinian people notwithstanding, these militant groups will continue the battle against Israel until the occupation ends and Israel no longer exists. I do not subscribe to this fatalist notion. The Palestinian people want to live– the alternative is a race to the edge of the abyss.