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12 May 2008 07:19
A senior Egyptian mediator will on Monday present to the Israeli government a new ceasefire proposal agreed with the Hamas Islamist movement that could halt the conflict in Gaza and begin to resolve the mounting economic crisis that has engulfed the strip.
Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence, is due to meet Israeli officials with the proposal after weeks of talks with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. The prospect of an initiative that might start to alleviate the economic blockade on Gaza comes two days before United States President George Bush is due to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders to discuss the flagging peace talks in the region.
Mahmoud Zahar, the most senior Hamas leader in Gaza, said that his movement had agreed to the proposal in order to end the economic crisis.
He said it had agreed that the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt could open and function with the involvement of representatives of Hamas’s rival, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the West Bank.
“For how long are we going to suffer from the Israeli policy of this strict sanction?” Zahar said in a rare interview in his office in Gaza City. “For this reason we can accept this Rafah crossing to be open all the time and we are ready to cooperate with the Egyptian side and the other Palestinian side to run the administration.”
Rafah has been closed to nearly all Palestinians for months, but was temporarily opened on Saturday to allow out the seriously ill and Palestinians with foreign passports.
Since Hamas won the Palestinian elections two years ago, Israel has imposed and gradually tightened an economic blockade in Gaza, which it now calls a “hostile territory”.
All exports are prevented and imports are heavily restricted, including fuel. A shortage of industrial diesel forced Gaza’s sole power plant to reduce production over the weekend, leaving much of Gaza City without power for several hours at a time.
The economic blockade has brought the private business sector to collapse and is broadly felt across Gaza, home to 1,5-million Palestinians, more than half of whom are children. It has been condemned by many, including the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. as “collective punishment”.
“The preoccupation of every single civilian person in the Gaza Strip is to survive at the moment at a very basic level,” said John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for the UN Relief and Works Agency, which supports Palestinian refugees.
“They are struggling to know where the water’s coming from, where the food is coming from, how they are going to get their child to school, how they are going to get some sick patient to the clinic. That’s what’s preoccupying the people here, not the politics.”
Zahar said he believed all the armed groups in Gaza, including Islamic Jihad, which is more hardline than Hamas, supported the ceasefire plan. It would run at first for six months and would cover only Gaza. In the past Hamas has pushed for a ceasefire to include the West Bank, but Zahar said the proposal was restricted to Gaza at the prompting of the Egyptians.
Hamas is demanding that Israel reopen all the crossing points into Gaza, but Zahar said his group would also accept a compromise under which there is a ceasefire but only the crossing at Rafah is reopened.
European monitors would, as before, be allowed to observe and monitor the crossing but Zahar said they should not have the right to order it closed. In the past, Israel could effectively close Rafah at any time since it could determine whether it was secure enough for European monitors to be present at Rafah. When they were not present the crossing was closed. Asked about the role of European monitors now, Zahar said: “We have no objection. They have the full right to observe and monitor but not to close or open the gate.”
Israel would retain some influence since it still has control of the Palestinian population registry, which determines who can cross into Gaza through Rafah. Otherwise the proposal is broadly in line with a 2005 agreement on Gaza’s crossings negotiated by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. It is not clear what happens to Rafah if Israel rejects the ceasefire proposal.
Israel has not admitted it is involved in negotiations about a ceasefire. However, it is thought unlikely that Suleiman would travel to Israel without a serious proposal. “Suleiman will come and we will listen to him. We’ll talk and we’ll see what he is recommending,” Israel’s deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, told Army Radio. “Until this moment there is nothing on the table open for discussion.”
At his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said Hamas bore responsibility for all militant attacks as the controlling force in Gaza. “It is responsible and it will have to bear the consequences and full responsibility for this activity,” Olmert said.
“We do not intend to countenance this ... The reality that prevails today must change. Either there is quiet or the state of Israel will take strong action that will ... in the end ... bring quiet.”
Zahar, an English-speaker and a founder of Hamas, is regarded as a hardliner. Asked if he accepted a future Palestinian state in the borders of pre-1967 Palestinian land, he said: “This is not the proper time to speak about this question.” - guardian.co.uk Â
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