Israel declared the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory currently controlled by Hamas, to be an "enemy entity" on Wednesday. The move has created speculation that Israel may be trying to turn the general population of Gaza against the group. Additionally, with US led peace talks months away, Israel's classification of Gaza and an unclear agenda have many already doubting the meeting's potential for success.
The Associated Press cites Israeli Army radio as reporting that the country's security leadership took the latest step in response to rocket attacks on Israel emanating from Gaza. The radio report also indicated that the declaration will make it easier for Israel to squeeze Hamas and the residents of Gaza.
The decision would let Israel cut off vital electricity, water and fuel supplies to the Palestinian territory, which the Islamic militant Hamas group took over in June.
The action would be the most severe of the retaliatory measures Israel has taken recently against near-daily rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel hopes to force Hamas to stop the projectile attacks because Israeli airstrikes and land incursions against the rocket launchers have not been effective.
The response from Hamas was almost immediate. The Islamic political party called Israel's designation of Gaza an "act of war," reports Reuters. Hamas's reply is increasing tensions as the US secretary of state travels to the region to drum up support for the November peace conference, which she has promised will be "significant," but that regional government's and analysts say is unlikely to make substantive progress, especially considering the divisions among the Palestinians.
"It is a declaration of war and continues the criminal, terrorist Zionist actions against our people," said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas in the coastal enclave.
Hamas forces, which seized control of Gaza in June after fighting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction, have been bracing for a broader Israeli offensive, particularly since a rocket struck an Israeli army base last week, wounding some three dozen soldiers.
Haaretz, a leading left-leaning Israeli daily, said the designation of Gaza as an enemy territory is part of new Israeli measures designed to create hardship in Gaza that might lead average citizens to turn against Hamas. Israel said it would disrupt power and fuel supplies, but would not cut off water.
The security cabinet unanimously approved a number of sanctions to be imposed on the Gaza Strip should the rocket fire on southern Israel continue. The steps are designed to create "civilian levers" that will pressure Gaza's Hamas rulers to bring the rocket fire to a halt.
"The objective is to weaken Hamas," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during the meeting, according to one participant.
Barak also said that Israel is moving closer to a large-scale military operation in Gaza. "Every day that passes brings us closer to an operation in Gaza," Barak was quoted as saying. He said an array of options would be considered before a major invasion.
Israel's Jerusalem Post, a conservative daily newspaper, reports that as Rice was scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon, there were doubts about the participation of regional governments, like Saudi Arabia, in the peace conference, something Israel had originally been hoping for.
Senior Israeli officials said that while Saudi participation was desirable, the key was to get "open support" for the diplomatic process and a two-state solution to the conflict "from additional players."
The officials said that this "broad support" could be gained even if the Saudis did not show up, if countries such as Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Morocco attended. Their participation would also be a clear statement to Hamas that its extreme positions did not have broad Arab support, the officials said.
Despite differences that have emerged between Israel and the Palestinians in recent days regarding what type of document will be discussed at that meeting - a broad agreement of principles, which Israel wants, or a more detailed framework agreement, which the Palestinians want – (US Assistant Secretary David) Welch said that the US remained committed to holding the conference this fall.
The Bush Administration has "failed to generate serious traction" for the upcoming conference, reports The Washington Post. Reportedly, the vagueness of the planned meeting's goals and agenda is frustrating Arab states.
I think for the first time here, in quite some time, I really do feel that there is an opportunity," Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch told reporters yesterday.
But Welch declined to discuss the process, the participants and the anticipated results of the conference.
Arab nations, notably Saudi Arabia, are looking for specific timelines and language on the most controversial issues, including the final status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, eventual borders between the two states and security guarantees. "If this conference will not discuss serious topics aimed to resolve the conflict, put Arab initiative as a key objective, set an agenda that details issues as required and oblige Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, this conference will not have any objective," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters last week.
Citing insufficient diplomacy, many are pessimistic that anything significant will come from the U.S. efforts. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said Rice has "underestimated the amount of heavy lifting she'll have to do," and that "she could succeed, but it's going to take the kind of legwork that she hasn't been prepared to take until now."
Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, argues in his blog Prospect for Peace that the outlook for the meeting is poor.
The signs do not look good: the daily situation on the ground has not improved, Palestinians remain deeply divided, and tension has just rocketed up on Israel's northern border with Syria. Predictably, all sides are upping the ante in advance of the Secretary's visit.
Attempted peacemaking, if ill-conceived, can be as risky and destabilizing as war-making. A harsh, but not totally unrealistic scenario would see a failed November effort weaken America's allies, mobilize adversaries, embolden Iran and further destabilize the region with a possible spill-over effect in Iraq. Avoiding this will require a more dynamic and less dogmatic diplomacy.