Israel-Palestine: lull before the storm?

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Maria Appakova) - A six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, or an "agreement on a lull" as it is phrased in Arabic, came into effect on Thursday, June 19. But both sides seem pessimistic about the future. If this agreement does not lead to peace, why was it needed?

"The lull" is even less than a truce, let alone talks leading to peace agreements. Few believe it will last for half a year.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says his government has no illusions; the calm is fragile and is not likely to last long. He added that the truce does not imply Israel's readiness to hold talks with Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip a year ago. The Israeli military are even more skeptical than their government. They are worried that the truce will give terrorists an opportunity to regroup, stock up on weapons, and replenish their food supplies. This has happened more than once.

The Palestinians also doubt that the truce can last a full six months, all the more so since the Israeli government will keep the army in combat readiness - just in case the ceasefire fails.

The events preceding the truce are indicative of the sides' attitudes. Palestinian militants attacked the south of Israel with at least 30 rockets and 10 mortar rounds in revenge for an Israeli air strike that killed seven Palestinians. Israel responded by striking at the rocketeers in the north of the Gaza Strip. In such a situation it is absurd to talk about the ceasefire agreement leading to progress towards a peace settlement. The "lull" is artificial and may be broken any minute, and not only because of a lack of restraint on both sides, but also because many agreements will remain on paper.

The agreement defers too many promises to the future. The truce should be followed by a stage-by-stage cancellation of Israel's economic sanctions against the Gaza Strip, talks between Gaza and Egypt aimed at reopening the Rafah crossing, resumption of negotiations on exchanging Israeli POW Gilad Shalit for Palestinian inmates, and cessation of Israeli operations on the West Bank, which is a particularly dim and distant prospect. The last item was not even put down on paper. The media report that Egypt, which engineered the agreement, has pledged to persuade Israel to do this at the request of Hamas and other groups. But it is a big question whether it will succeed.

Shalit's fate is unclear. Israel had made his release a pre-condition for a ceasefire, but the Palestinians refused to accept it and are now celebrating the "victory of resistance." The Israelis are very disappointed. The opposition and many of Olmert's associates opposed the draft agreement, which would not provide for Shalit's release. But all they have achieved is an agreement on further talks on the issue.

The Israeli public does not want to settle for this particularly because it is not yet clear on what terms he will be set free. Reports say that he will be exchanged either for hundreds of Palestinian inmates or for all of them, or that Hamas will release him without any pre-conditions. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, the current chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, made a statement to this effect at the Petra forum of Nobel Prize winners, but it is hard to believe that Hamas would give up such a valuable bargaining chip so easily.

Thus, the only positive result of the truce is humanitarian relief to Gaza residents, and a temporary respite for both sides.

But neither Israeli nor Palestinian politicians would come to terms simply for the sake of a short respite, which may lead to even more bloodshed. The unstated reason for the cease-fire is that both sides needed a pause in order to concentrate on domestic problems. Hamas can now conduct talks on inter-Palestinian reconciliation with Fatah, which is lead by Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian National Authority. In Israel, the leaders of the ruling Kadima party can take their time in preparing for the forthcoming party primaries, and then for early elections to the Knesset, which could be announced at any moment.

If the ceasefire agreement is carried out as planned, both Kadima and Hamas will score points at home. This will serve them well in the domestic political struggle that both of them are in for. On the other hand, if the "lull" fails, the politicians will lose nothing: they can always put the blame on the other side.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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