[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

June 18, 2006

 

This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

 

The Gaza beach investigation

 

Israel has spent considerable time, energy, money, and political collateral in an internal IDF investigation of the cause of death of the Ghaliya family on Beit Lahia beach. The investigation headed by Major-General Meir Klifi, issued a report that said late last week that Israel was not responsible for the tragic deaths and that it is likely the blast stemmed from a bomb placed by the Palestinians at the site or "some form of unexploded ordnance." He added that the probe on the latter point was continuing. It was quite clear from the outset that the Palestinians would not believe the IDF report, even before the investigation began.  Strengthened by the report of a U.S. Human Rights Watch bomb expert who happened to be in Gaza at the say time, the Palestinians still claim that Israel is responsible and they demand an international independent commission to explore what led to the deaths of the seven members of the family.

 

I watched Major-General Klifi on Israel television and I have read the reports in the Israeli newspapers.  I too am suspicious about the findings of the report – I was not convinced, although I admit, I would like to be convinced by the Israeli claims.  The Israeli report documented the exact times that Israeli artillery fired at Gaza and Klifi claimed to have tested some shrapnel taken from some of the wounded now treated in Israel, and on the basis of those two main elements, have concluded that Israel is not responsible.  I have a natural sense of suspicion at any time an institution being investigated is essentially investigating itself. I don’t think that Israel has scored any points at all in the international community from its own self acquittal of charges in this case.  If Israel is so confident of the findings, it would be wise to invite a truly independent commission of inquiry to come and examine the IDF’s findings and compare them with findings found by others in Gaza.  Until that happens, I am afraid, very few people in the world will accept the IDF findings.

 

 

It’s raining qassams

 

I believe that Israelis are right to raise questions about why they are under attack from Gaza.  Israel withdrew from Gaza up to the international border, removed all settlements and every soldier, yet militants from Gaza are still hitting Israel. Palestinian militants and other Palestinians claim that the occupation over Gaza has continued because Israel still controls the airspace and the territorial waters and because the Palestinians in Gaza cannot construct their sea port or reopen their airport without Israeli agreement.  Furthermore, they claim that the West Bank is still under occupation and Gaza and the West Bank are one territorial unit that make up the future Palestinian state.  Palestinian claims may be correct but they certainly don’t generate any public support in Israel for their cause while, even after full withdrawal, Israeli communities alongside of Gaza bear the brunt of Palestinian aggression.

 

Sderot in particular has been heavily hit by the Qassam attacks.  Amir Peretz, the new defense minister lives in Sderot and he returns there every evening to face the anger of his neighbors.  Peretz is stuck between a rock and a hard place because he has been trying to prevent escalation in the fighting driven by calls from the IDF to penetrate Gaza with a ground operation.  Peretz has not given up on the idea of the so-called “targeted killings” and almost everyday we hear of such killings by the Israeli air force against Islamic Jihad militants mainly.  Hamas forces launched some Qassams as well after the Beit Lahia beach killings, but they have returned to restraint in accordance with the instructions of the Palestinian Prime Minister Haniyeh.  Peretz has issued threats to the Hamas leaders that if they don’t control the attacks against Israel, the IDF would target Hamas political leaders as well as militants.

 

Peretz knows that there is no military solution to deal with the qassam rockets. He also knows that Israel cannot continue to tolerate the rainfall of rockets on his towns and villages.  But he is under intense pressure, especially after a qassam rocket fell on a school in Sderot.  Furtunately, the schools in Sderot are on a parent-led strike until the qassam attacks conpletely cease.  If there had been children in the school today, there definitely would have been casualties which probably would have led to an intensive Israeli retaliation.

 

The only strategy that has not been tried and tested is a full scale bilateral ceasefire.  It is clear that Israel will not negotiate directly with Hamas, but it is possible to arrive at an agreement through the good offices of Egypt.  If the internal Palestinian dialogue reaches a positive conclusion, there are better chances that a bilateral ceasefire could be possible.  Egypt has been extremely active behind the scenes in facilitating the process of Hamas-Fateh agreement, once that is achieved the Egyptians should move onto the PA-Israel front.

 

Olmert is realigning the realignment

 

Olmert’s world-wind tour to the US, Egypt, Jordan, the UK and France have now produced quite a lot of “literature” and commentary of the realignment plan.  There have not been any government meetings or discussions on the plan and no formal decisions have been taken, yet the rumor mill of what realignment means has been working overtime.  I have heard that there are at least three realignment maps on the desk of the Prime Minister.  Olmert has said that Israel would withdraw from almost all of the West Bank, but he has also stated that Israel will never return to the 1967 borders.  Olmert has said that Israel would not give up the Jordan valley and that all of East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli control.  At the same time, Olmert has instructed some of his advisors to re-examine the Jerusalem map and to suggest areas of east Jerusalem that Israel could place on the other side of the wall.

 

Such contradictory information lends itself very well to speculation and high suspicions. I have heard from diplomats and from Palestinians such contradictory reports that Israel intends to withdraw from anywhere from 40% of the West Bank to 90%.  Recent reports have suggested that Olmert plans to skip over Phase I of the Road Map and lead directly to the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders, as Phase II of the Road Map calls for. I am afraid that we are going to have to be more patient until we really know what Olmert intends to do and then even more time until the government begins to debate the various plans.

 

If the Hamas-Fateh national dialogue produces an agreement and the Palestinians decide to create a technocratic government without direct Hamas participation, Israel will be pressured by the international community to pursue renewed negotiations with the Palestinian leadership.  At that time it may become possible to speak about a coordinated Israeli withdrawal or even a renewed peace process.  At this time, it looks rather too optimistic to believe that it is possible to renew the peace process.

 

 

Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.  www.ipcri.org