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 cease-fire arrangement, according to a U.S.-based source who has been briefed on the proposal.
The proposal to renew the cease-fire 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 cease-fire last spring, to “put pressure” on Israel to take that the cease-fire 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 cease-fire conditionally in mid-December was confirmed by Dr. Robert Pastor, a professor at American University and senior adviser to the Carter Center, 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 cease-fire 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 Defense 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 cease-fire 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 cease-fire 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 cease-fire 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 cease-fire 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 YNet 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 cease-fire agreement that went into effect June 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 cease-fire.