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Gaza Strip

Israel Spoke Hamas’ Language to Halt Attacks

By Steve Schippert | June 15, 2006

It did not seem to get the attention deserved when Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's top political aide, Ahmed Yusef, said that attacks on Israel do not serve Hamas, a radical change in tone from just days ago. His words were an attention getter as he said of a planned renewal of the informal ceasefire with Israel, "Renewing the suicide bombings does not serve the interests of the Palestinian government. The government is against harming civilians on both sides, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has acted decisively to stop civilians from being harmed, and even to stop rocket fire."

Suddenly Hamas has taken on a conciliatory tone, including conceding authority to Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel on a two-state settlement. There are two developments in play, both of them external to Hamas with one from the international community via an Egyptian delegation and the other from Israel in the form of frank and stark warnings to the Hamas leadership.

After more rocket attacks in less than two weeks of June than in all of May – which had seen the most rocket attacks in any month previously – Israel had responded by limiting their response to attacking the cells launching the Qassam and Katyusha rocket attacks. But following a weekend barrage that saw 38 attacks over a single 24-hour period alone, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided that the only option short of loosing the dogs of war was to simply warn Hamas leaders directly and frankly. In Israel’s eyes, though Palestinians decried it as excessive, the response to date had been quite limited. But Peretz made it clear that this approach was about to cease saying, “But I have warned everyone that I have no intention of turning restraint into a strategy." Everyone meant everyone, right to the top of Hamas’ leadership.

Likely while Peretz' warning was working its way to Haniyeh in secret through Shin Bet connections, the Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Tzachi Hanegbi, made a far more public warning to Hamas chairman and PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Over Israeli radio, Henegbi took a direct and public approach by saying, “Yassin and Rantissi are waiting for you, Haniyeh, if you implement the same stance of liquidating Jews, indiscriminate firing and suicide terror attacks aimed at paralyzing Israeli society again.”

Secretly, however, with the power to act directly that Hanegbi does not posses, Peretz sent his message straight to Hamas’ Haniyeh. He advised, "Return your arsenal to your storage rooms. We know where each storage room is...We won't allow this violence to harm Israeli citizens.” Included was the stark warning that failure to stop the attacks will result in blunt and sudden force and the elimination of the Hamas leadership through targeted strikes.

Message received.

Haniyeh understood clearly and relayed the message immediately to the Damascus headquarters of Hamas for action. But Khalid Meshal’s headquarters, safely removed from the direct line of fire, reacted to Haniyeh with some disdain, as one of Meshal’s aides responded that Hamas headquarters does not take orders from Gaza, but that they would “consider the request.” Apparently, consider they did.

It is now being widely reported that Hamas is openly and suddenly seeking a ceasefire with Israel. It is no coincidence that rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel fell silent since Tuesday, with the exception of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad Qassam attack Wednesday. This morning, however, four Qassams again slammed into Sderot while an Arutz Sheva television crew filmed, likely again the handiwork of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Hamas clearly sees the clear danger in supporting these attacks directly and has taken to publicly suing for peace with Israel. Speaking in Hebrew, which is notable in itself, Hamas' Ghazi Hamad said in an Israeli radio interview, "I spoke today with the prime minister and he said we definitely want quiet everywhere. We are interested in a ceasefire everywhere." He then added, "We have no problem to have an end to the rocket firing but on condition Israel stops all forms of military attacks against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank."

This is a clear and sudden change in tone from Hamas. It is a tone that is largely a response to Israel directly speaking their language: The language of force and threat. The ‘new tone’ also includes an agreement with Fatah to pull its militias from the streets of Gaza, though Hamas has agreed to this in the past. In return, Abbas’ Fatah has agreed to blend them into the PA Security Forces structure. Perhaps this time Hamas will honor the agreement under the additional direct pressure from Israel and the international community.

The ‘international’ pressure on Hamas comes in the form of an Egyptian delegation’s proposal that the Hamas government step down and cede to Fatah the power to negotiate with Israel. The proposal called for the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council to focus responsibilities on internal affairs in what amounts to more of a stepping aside than a stepping down. Facing its own collapse, the Hamas government seems to find the winds blowing from all directions and appears to be seeking self-preservation rather than ideological conflict with Israel and the increasingly uphill battle internally with both Fatah and public Palestinian opinion.

Much of the language of the Egyptian proposal can already be seen in the conciliatory language used by Hamas in the past 24 hours, including moves and indications beyond suing for peace with Israel in response to the direct threat issued by Peretz. But Israel’s decision to speak Hamas’ language while holding a very real stick was likely the turning point in the Hamas decision to take a more conciliatory stance, if only for self-preservation.

Hamas’ statement that attacks on Israel “do not serve Hamas” should not be interpreted as an epiphany, but rather the simple recognition that they were about to feel a heat that they could not withstand. That the rocket attacks had fallen nearly silent is also a clear indication of who was behind the attacks, which did not begin after Hamas ending of the ceasefire lat4 last week, but well before.