Analysis Brief

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The War’s Forgotten Front

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: August 21, 2006


It has been merely two months since Hamas militants crossed the Gaza border and abducted an Israeli soldier, but in that time the political landscape in the Middle East has shifted drastically. Just weeks after the Hamas abduction, Hezbollah fighters staged a similar raid on an Israeli border post, capturing two soldiers and touching off a war between Israel and Hezbollah that dominated international headlines for a month. With a cease-fire holding along Israel's northern front, attention is turning back to Gaza, which one year ago saw the unilateral Israeli pullout from settlements they had occupied for thirty-eight years (The Independent). A report from the Palestinian Monitoring Group says July was the deadliest month in Gaza (PDF) since October 2004, and news reports suggest there is little hope for a timely halt to the fighting (BBC).

But Israel's incursion into Gaza may have had some positive effect on the Palestinian Authority government. Before the start of the fighting with Israel, Hamas was at such odds with Fatah that there were fears a civil war would erupt (TIME) between the two political camps. On Wednesday, President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, and Hamas political leader and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh agreed to begin negotiations on forming a unity government (Haaretz). Haniyeh says a basis for talks is the so-called prisoners' document drawn up by jailed Palestinian leaders, which implies recognition of the state of Israel. Haniyeh also said there is no chance of such a government forming as long as Israel's "siege" on Gaza persists (Daily Star).

Palestinian leaders hope a broader government will help bring an end to the crippling international isolation of the Palestinian Territories. Of course, resolving the prisoner dilemma is necessary before that is likely to happen. Hamas is demanding the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the Israeli soldier (JPost). Israel appears to be gathering bargaining chips for such an exchange. On August 20, Israeli troops captured two more members of the Hamas government (WashPost), including the relatively moderate Nasser Shaer, a deputy prime minister and the top Palestinian education official. Israel now has forty Palestinian government officials in its custody.

Of course, not everyone in the Palestinian Territories is eager for a cessation of hostilities. Experts say Israel's inability to destroy Hezbollah's militia (Haaretz) in Lebanon has diminished Israel's military prowess and may embolden Israel's enemies (Institute for Palestine Studies). Writing in the Los Angeles Times, CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot cautions Israel's enemies "not to underestimate that nation's fighting capacity." Though Hamas' political leaders appear interested in resolving the conflict, the group's military wing has often pursued a different agenda, in part because the group's leader, Khaled Meshal, lives in exile in Syria.

Last week marked the anniversary of the start of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Ynet hosts an online debate on the decision to remove Israeli settlements from Gaza. Before his election, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert laid out a plan for "convergence," a unilateral establishment of Israel's boundaries that would require withdrawal from additional settlements in the West Bank. But according to new reports, the Israeli leader has suspended the plan (BBC) in response to recent events. Convergence may not be the only political casualty of the war. There are suggestions the separation wall may go (Haaretz), and Olmert and his cabinet are facing growing calls for their resignations (U.S. News & World Report). The Washington Institute's David Makovsky tells Bernard Gwertzman, "There are going to be a lot of questions on whether the Olmert government can survive."

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