As Gaza cease-fire holds, Israel eases economic blockade

Some analysts says that Hamas's ability to enforce the Egyptian-brokered truce with Israel could widen international acceptance of the militant Islamist organization.

Ismail Zaydah/Reuters
Cease-fire: A Palestinian man loaded fuel on Sunday near a Gaza-Israel border crossing.

After three days without a single shooting violation of an Israel-Hamas cease-fire, Israel on Sunday boosted supplies of food and medicines into the Gaza Strip by about 50 percent and said it's considering further relaxations of the months-long siege on the war-weary enclave.

For all the official playing down of the Gaza cease-fire declared Thursday between Hamas and Israel, as well as predictions of its imminent demise, the agreement may mark a break with a long-standing Israeli and American boycott of the Islamic militant organization.

Israel's de facto recognition of Hamas's rule in Gaza, analysts say, holds the prospect of widening international acceptance for the organization, giving it a compelling incentive to keep up its end of the bargain.

"This is the power that Israel has to deal with," says Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst. "It's not full diplomatic recognition, but Israel has recognized Hamas as an important party – on some issues it can't be avoided.

"Israel is showing that its past policy of refusing to talk to militant organizations, something which it has been preaching to the US, is not always functional," he adds. "Jerusalem has realized that talking to its enemies is the shortest and most cost-effective path militarily, economically, and strategically."

Gil Karie, a spokesman for the army's civil liaison office, said 90 truckloads of humanitarian supplies were allowed in to Gaza on Sunday, up from about 65. Mr. Karie said the army will continue to review the cease-fire, and plans to gradually boost the amount of supplies allowed in to Gaza.

In its official statements, Israel took pains to argue that the truce was not the product of negotiations with Hamas, but rather of an Egyptian compromise proposal. "The Israeli position regarding Hamas as a terror organization has not changed one iota," read a Foreign Ministry announcement.

But beyond its newfound credibility as an partner (even if indirect) for talks, Hamas is now in a position to demonstrate to Israel, the Arab world, and the international community that it has the ability and will to enforce a truce in Gaza over objections of myriad militant groups there. It's a sign of sovereignty that would strike a contrast with the inability of President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority to control armed groups.

Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told a parliamentary panel that he doesn't believe Hamas has the will to use force to enforce the cease-fire, Haaretz reported. Meanwhile, the father of captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, Noam, petitioned the Supreme Court against the cease-fire. Mr. Shalit argued that the reopening of Gaza's border crossings will give captors a chance to smuggle Gilad out of Gaza.

Hamas, the Egyptians, and the Palestinian Authority are expected to start talks on setting up a mechanism to reopen the Rafah border terminal, the only civilian crossing for Gaza's 1.4 million residents. Taking responsibility for a functioning international border would mark another sign of sovereign rule for Hamas. Talks are also expected to restart on a prisoner swap that would free Corporal Shalit after two years in captivity.

Ghassan Khatib, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority, predicted that the cease-fire would boost Hamas's standing in Palestinian and Arab public opinion, while marginalizing Mr. Abbas.

"Hamas is the party that can fire, and the party that can cease the fire. That is very significant as far as Hamas is concerned," he says. "The international community will take notice of the fact that Israel is indirectly reaching an agreement with Hamas, and that will put Hamas on a different standing."

To be sure, international recognition is unlikely to come immediately. On Thursday, United Nations Middle East Envoy Robert Serry told Israel Radio the international community hasn't changed its policy toward Hamas, though he said he hoped that the cease-fire would help Hamas come out of its isolation. Mr. Serry was alluding to three conditions – recognition of Israel, past treaties, and disavowing violence – for gaining political acceptance.

Ironically, it was Israel that rallied the US and the international community to hold Hamas to those conditions. But critics of the cease-fire said that by agreeing to the truce, Israel has led the way toward ignoring those conditions.

"Jerusalem was the first to tear an opening in the wall of the boycott," wrote Sever Plocker, a commentator for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. "Without any political, ideological, or strategic concession on its part, Hamas received recognition from Israel as the legitimate landlord of the Gaza Strip, an authentic representative of the Palestinian people, and a partner for various arrangements. This is a priceless gift to Hamas."

Still, the cease-fire was not a one-sided affair in favor of Hamas, some analysts say. Mohammad Dejani, a political science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, says it represented Hamas's de facto recognition of Israel as well as an endorsement of the peace process – even if it is referred to in Arabic as a tahdiyeh, or calm.

Mr. Dejani said that he's convinced the cease-fire will lead to full-blown peace talks. "I am sure that there are also negotiations regarding the bigger picture. This a rational assumption," he says. "It could build trust and there could be steps to follow. The assumption is that it will not stop here."

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