Egyptian President Mubarak demands immediate Israeli cease-fire

It’s not clear what this means, or where this move fits into any choreography of events that are unfolding in this region, but Egypt’s President Mubarak said in an address on state television: “I demand Israel today stop its military operations immediately. I demand from its leaders an immediate and unconditional cease-fire and I demand from them a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Strip.” This report can be read in full on AP here, and on AFP here.

In a separate story, AFP reported that “Egypt, which had been trying to broker a reciprocal peace deal, said the main problem was, according to Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, ‘Israeli intransigence’. He added that ‘Israel is drunk with power and violence’. Abul Gheit also said that Cairo is ‘absolutely not bound’ by the US-Israeli agreement on arms smuggling’.” This AFP report is posted here.

In what seems like a contradiction, the same AFP story said that the Israeli security cabinet is expected to convene on Saturday night (after Shabbat ends) to approve a unilateral Israeli ceasefire. AFP says that “The expected stop to the violence came after the Jewish state won pledges from Washington and Cairo to help prevent arms smuggling into the Islamist-run enclave from Egypt, a key demand for ending the war … Under the terms of the proposal being discussed by the security cabinet, Israel would silence its guns even without a truce with Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since mid-2007, a senior government official said. The Israeli official made clear that the army would respond to any Hamas attacks even after a ceasefire order from the security cabinet. ‘If it decides to open fire, we will not hesitate to respond and resume our offensive’, he told AFP … ‘Olmert was satisfied with the results of the talks in Cairo, which answered Israel’s basic requirements for a thorough answer to Israel’s demands to halt rocket fire and an agreement on coordination between Israel and Egypt on the opening of the crossings’ on the Gaza border, the official added”.

AFP noted that “Gaza militants fired some seven rockets into Israel on Saturday, without causing any casualties. Later this was updated to report that some 15 “projectiles” were fired from Gaza onto surrounding Israeli land.

Nevertheless, the press has been advised that security checks for an expected press conference with Prime Minister Olmert will start at 6 p.m. (camera crews with equipment), and the press conference itself might be around 10 p.m. in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

Haaretz said that “The decision would mean Israel has put an end to the three-week-long Operation Cast Lead without an agreement with Hamas, relying instead on the support of the United States and Egypt in battling arms smuggling into Gaza”. This report is posted here.

Reuters reported that it is “an apparent effort to deny the Islamist group any gains from the three-week-old conflict … ‘The goal is to announce, subject to cabinet approval, a suspension of military activities because we believe our goals have been attained’, said the official, asking not to be named. Without an accord with Hamas, diplomats said they feared Israel would let only a trickle of goods into Gaza, hampering reconstruction and creating more hardship for its people. The security cabinet is due to meet in the evening and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will address the nation after that. ‘There is no agreement with Hamas’, the Israeli official said, adding that Israel would reserve the right to act if Hamas continued firing or launched rockets across the border … Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak urged Israel to end its military operations immediately and planned to host a reconstruction conference, but he did not say when. Western diplomats said Cairo was also planning a meeting of world leaders on Gaza as early as Sunday. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and several European leaders were expected to attend, the diplomats said … In addition to declaring a unilateral ceasefire, Israeli officials said they expected Israel and Egypt to reach an agreement on increased security along the Gaza-Egyptian border. Under its terms, they said, the Rafah border crossing would only reopen in line with a 2005 agreement with the Palestinian Authority, which calls for President Mahmoud Abbas’s forces to be in control and for Europeans to monitor traffic … Abbas will meet Mubarak in Cairo on Sunday, his aides said”. This report can be read in full here.

In a way, this is like a resumption — though after massive death and destruction inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza over the past three weeks — of the unwritten cease-fire or “tahdiya” that went into effect on June 19.

But couldn’t this have happened without all the damage? Was it all just meant to “teach the Palestinians a lesson”?

One Israeli friend just said it is very reminiscent of what the former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon did in August and September 2005 – a unilateral withdrawal without any agreement. But this time, the IDF does not seem to have to withdraw right away at all, and this is one of the key demands of Hamas.

So, if this is a lot of media attention for a cease-fire that will never be a cease-fire, what is it, then? Is it a preparation for a much bigger offensive?

Jonathan Cook has written that “Israel is planning to resort to its favourite diplomatic manoeuvre: unilateralism. It wants a solution that passes over the heads of Hamas and the Palestinians. Or as Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, put it: ‘There is no intention here of creating a diplomatic agreement with Hamas. We need diplomatic agreements against Hamas’.”

He adds: “Although Israel is determined to crush Hamas politically and militarily, so far it has been loathe to topple it. Israel withdrew from Gaza precisely because the demographic, military and economic costs of directly policing its refugee camps were considered too high. It will not be easily dragged back in. Other options are either unpalatable or unfeasible. A Fatah government riding in on the back of Israeli tanks would lack legitimacy, and no regime at all – anarchy – risks loosing forces more implacably opposed to a Jewish state than Hamas, including al-Qaeda. Placing Gaza under a peacekeeping force faces other hurdles: not least, the question of which countries would be prepared to take on such a dangerous burden … The formula currently being sought for a ceasefire will face opposition from Israel unless it helps achieve several goals. (1.) Israel’s first is to seal off Gaza properly this time … They will ensure that the blockade cannot be broken and that Hamas cannot rearm with the the help of outside actors like Iran. At best, Hamas can hope to limp on as nominal ruler of Gaza, on Israeli sufferance. (2.) The second goal has been well articulated by the Harvard scholar Sara Roy, who has been arguing for some time that Israel is, in her words, ‘de-developing’ Gaza. The blockade has been integral to achieving that objective, and is the reason Israel wants it strengthened. In the longer term, she believes, Gazans will come to be ‘seen merely as a humanitarian problem, beggars who have no political identity and therefore can have no political claims’. In addition, Gazans living close to the enclave’s northern and southern borders may be progressively ‘herded’ into central Gaza – as envisioned in Vilnai’s plan last year. That process may already be under way, with Israeli leafletting campaigns warning inhabitants of these areas to flee. Israel wants to empty both the Rafah area, so that it can monitor more easily any attempts at tunnelling, and the northern part because this is the location of the rocket launches that are hitting major Israeli cities such as Ashkelon and Ashdod and may one day reach Tel Aviv. (3.) The third and related goal, as Barak and Vilnai proposed more than a year ago, is to cut off all Israeli responsibility for Gaza — though not oversight of what is allowed in. Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst, believes that in this scenario Israel will insist that humanitarian supplies into Gaza pass only through the Egyptian crossing, thereby also undercutting Hamas’ role. Already Israel is preparing to hand over responsibility for supplying Gaza’s electricity to Egypt – a special plant is under construction close by in the Sinai. Slowly, the hope is, Gaza’s physical and political separation from the West Bank will be cemented, with the enclave effectively being seen as a province of Egypt. Its inhabitants will lose their connection to the wider Palestinian people and eventually Cairo may grow bold enough to crack down on Hamas as brutally as it does its own Islamists. The regime of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, meanwhile, will be further isolated and weakened, improving Israel’s chances of forcing it to sign a deal annexing East Jerusalem and large swaths of the West Bank on which the Jewish settlements sit. (4.) The fourth goal relates to wider regional issues. The chief obstacle to the implementation of Israel’s plan is the growing power of Iran and its possible pursuit of nuclear weapons. Israel’s official concern – that Tehran wants to attack Israel – is simple mischief-making. Rather Israel is worried that, if Iran becomes a regional superpower, Israeli diktats in the Middle East and in Washington will not go unchallenged … It is therefore seeking to isolate Tehran, severing all ties between it and Hamas, just as it earlier tried – and failed – to do the same between Iran and Hizbullah. It wants the Palestinians beholden instead to the “moderate” block in the Arab world, meaning the Sunni dictatorships like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that in turn depend on Washington for their security”. This can be read in full here.

And, Uri Avnery has written that “When there is a ceasefire, the first question will be: Who won? In Israel , all the talk is about the ‘picture of victory’ – not victory itself, but the ‘picture’. That is essential, in order to convince the Israeli public that the whole business has been worthwhile. At this moment, all the thousands of media people, to the very last one, have been mobilized to paint such a ‘picture’. The other side, of course, will paint a different one. The Israeli leaders will boast of two ‘achievements’: the end of the rockets and the sealing of the Gaza-Egypt border (the co-called ‘Philadelphi route’. Dubious achievements: the launching of the Qassams could have been prevented without a murderous war, if our government had been ready to negotiate with Hamas after they won the Palestinian elections. The tunnels under the Egyptian border would not have been dug in the first place, if our government had not imposed the deadly blockade on the Strip. But the main achievement of the war planners lies in the very barbarity of their plan: the atrocities will have, in their view, a deterrent effect that will hold for a long time. Hamas, on the other side, will assert that their survival in the face of the mighty Israeli war machine, a tiny David against a giant Goliath, is by itself a huge victory. According to the classic military definition, the winner in a battle is the army that remains on the battlefield when it’s over. Hamas remains. The Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip still stands, in spite of all the efforts to eliminate it. That is a significant achievement. Hamas will also point out that the Israeli army was not eager to enter the Palestinian towns, in which their fighters were entrenched. And indeed: the army told the government that the conquest of Gaza city could cost the lives of about 200 soldiers, and no politician was ready for that on the eve of elections. The very fact that a guerrilla force of a few thousand lightly armed fighters held out for long weeks against one of the world’s mightiest armies with enormous firepower, will look to millions of Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims, and not only to them, like an unqualified victory. In the end, an agreement will be concluded that will include the obvious terms. No country can tolerate its inhabitants being exposed to rocket fire from beyond the border, and no population can tolerate a choking blockade. Therefore (1) Hamas will have to give up the launching of missiles, (2) Israel will have to open wide the crossings between the Gaza Strip and the outside world, and (3) the entry of arms into the Strip will be stopped (as far as possible), as demanded by Israel. All this could have happened without war, if our government had not boycotted Hamas”. This can be read in full here.

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