Middle East 'Military Escalation Brewing'

CAIRO - After another round of Egypt-brokered talks between Israel and Palestinian resistance factions, a cessation of hostilities remains elusive as ever. According to statements by both sides, failure to achieve a degree of calm in the short term could lead instead to open confrontation.

"Both sides appear to be heading not to a ceasefire but towards military escalation," Abdelaziz Shadi, political science professor and coordinator of the Israeli studies programme at Cairo University, told IPS.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman made a quick trip last month to Tel Aviv where he tried to persuade Israeli leaders to back an Egyptian proposal for a calming of hostilities, or "tahdia", between the Hebrew state and Palestinian resistance factions.

In April, Suleiman convinced resistance group Hamas, along with a dozen smaller resistance factions, to sign on to the plan.

The initiative calls for a halt to Israeli military assaults on targets in the Gaza Strip in return for an end to the firing of Palestinian rockets on Israeli towns. In addition to a cessation of hostilities, the Egyptian proposal also calls for the reopening of border crossings -- including Egypt's Rafah terminal.

Since Hamas wrested control of the territory almost a year ago (after winning an election in 2006), virtually all routes in and out of the Gaza Strip have been hermetically sealed by the Israeli authorities.

Under the terms of the proposal, the ceasefire would initially apply only to the Gaza Strip. In the event that the truce holds, it would be extended to the West Bank, governed by the western-backed Fatah Party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But the offer met with a tepid response by Israeli officials, who insisted on attaching several of their own conditions.

While in Tel Aviv on May 12, Suleiman was told that any deal must also include the release of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured by resistance factions in 2006. According to statements by the Israeli defence ministry, Shalit's release represents "a key component in normalising the security situation in the Gaza Strip."

Although Egyptian efforts aimed at brokering a prisoner swap have been ongoing since Shalit's capture, they have yet to produce a breakthrough. While Hamas has said it would release the soldier in exchange for Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails, Tel Aviv has repeatedly rejected Hamas' proposed lists of detainees.

Israel also conditioned a ceasefire on the halt of alleged weapons smuggling from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip, while rejecting Palestinian demands that it open the borders of Gaza to people and cargo.

In meetings with Suleiman, Hamas officials scoffed at the freshly-imposed raft of Israeli stipulations, accusing Tel Aviv of trying to attain a ceasefire while maintaining its stranglehold on the Gaza Strip.

"We have stressed that the tahdia must guarantee a lifting of the siege and the reopening of all crossings, especially the Rafah border crossing," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan was quoted as saying.

On Sunday (May 25), Israeli Defence Ministry official Amos Gilad visited Cairo where Egyptian officials officially informed him of Hamas' response.

Although Gilad is expected to return to Cairo next week for further truce talks, several Israeli officials have suggested -- barring a ceasefire written according to their terms -- a possible military solution to the standoff.

"Israel wants quiet and full security...and if that won't come to fruition through Egyptian mediation, it will be brought to fruition through other means," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying May 25.

"Israel looks poised to launch a major operation in the Gaza Strip if Egypt's mediation efforts fail," said Shadi.

Hamas too has warned of unilateral action from its side if the Israel-imposed siege of the territory is not lifted.

Speaking from Tehran on May 24, Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal warned that the Palestinian people would consider certain "options" if the territory's borders were not soon opened to people and goods.

"If the international community doesn't take steps to break the blockade, we'll break it ourselves," Meshaal was quoted as saying.

Nevertheless, Egyptian diplomatic officials say there is still hope of achieving a breakthrough.

"Egypt is still making every effort to reach a tahdia," Mohamed Bassyouni, former ambassador to Israel and head of the Shoura (upper) Council's Committee for Arab Affairs, told IPS. "Talk that mediation efforts have failed is absolutely unfounded.

"We still must wait for a definitive answer from Israel before we can say whether or not the initiative has failed," he added.

Bassyouni went on to concede the possibility of a looming Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, but added: "Egyptian mediation efforts aim to pre-empt such an outcome."

Independent commentators, however, express less optimism.

"Achieving a tahdia in these circumstances is a tall order," said Shadi. "Especially because Israeli policies until now have been marked only by aggression and escalation."

He went on to say that neither side appeared genuine in its desire to achieve a full cessation of hostilities.

"Olmert is held hostage to Israeli domestic politics, while Hamas is under pressure from Iran, which supports the group for its own strategic purposes," said Shadi. "For these reasons, Egypt's mediation efforts will most likely end in failure."

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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