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Israeli offensive dealt "major blow" to Hamas

De Crousaz says Hamas will have trouble exercising power in Gaza given the extent of the damage to infrastructure

(Keystone)

A Geneva-based Middle East expert, back from a working visit to the region, says the latest Israeli offensive has left Hamas in a weakened position.

Pascal de Crousaz gives swissinfo his assessment of the offensive on Gaza and its implications on both the Palestinians and the Israelis. He also looks ahead to diplomatic negotiations underway to solve the conflict.

The Israeli army withdrew from the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, the third day of a ceasefire declared separately by Israel and Hamas.

On Thursday the United Nations humanitarian chief, John Holmes, began a tour of the area to examine the extent of the damage after the three-week offensive.

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said the situation on the ground was comparable to the aftermath of an earthquake.

A number of humanitarian organisations continue to call for all border crossings into Gaza to be permanently opened so aid can pass through quickly.

swissinfo: Did the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip achieve its objectives?

Pascal de Crousaz: Israel has talked about significantly weakening Hamas through its offensive in Gaza, restoring the deterrent capability of the Israeli defence forces and hindering the smuggling of weapons destined for Gaza.

What we can already say is that Hamas has suffered major blows, as have, unfortunately, the people of Gaza. Hamas's big mistake is to have wanted – with its rocket fire and the non-renewal of the truce with Israel – to obtain relief from the Gaza blockade, and by doing so to put pressure on Israeli leaders on the eve of elections.

The Islamist movement has completely underestimated the Israeli reaction. Given the magnitude of the destruction of infrastructure and government buildings, Hamas is going to have even more difficulties in exercising power in the Gaza Strip.

For its part, the Palestinian Authority was also weakened after leading a very severe crackdown in the West Bank against demonstrations in support for Hamas and collaborating with Israeli security services to arrest dozens of Hamas supporters in recent weeks.

swissinfo: Are the Israeli architects of this offensive now better placed in the elections on February 10?

P. de C.: Both Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni saw voting intentions for them climb considerably in the polls. But their opponent Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party can also take advantage of this military operation, for example by emphasising the fate of Gilad Shalit, the soldier who is still in the hands of Hamas.

swissinfo: What are the paths emerging on the diplomatic front?

P. de C.: For the time being it is a question of consolidating the fragile ceasefire and achieving a lasting truce. To this end, diplomacy has two objectives: to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel by blocking the smuggling of arms into Gaza and to reopen the Gaza Strip to the world.

The idea is to establish a mechanism enabling the border between Egypt and Gaza to open for people and goods but not for arms smuggling. The Palestinian Authority would control the Palestinian border. It would be supported by EU observers and Israeli cameras. Several options are currently under discussion for strengthening this mechanism and preventing the flow of weapons into Gaza.

But Hamas will still need to accept the presence of international observers and the return of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip. Resolution 1860 adopted by the Security Council two weeks ago did indeed call for reconciliation between the two Palestinian sides, in order to bring Hamas back into the Palestinian Authority.

For Hamas it would be a victory as it would be able to demand that the Gaza Strip should be reopened and that it should again be part of the Palestinian Authority. But that would require Hamas to moderate its positions.

If this plan materialises, it is imaginable that the momentum to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be revived.

swissinfo: Will the coming to power of Barack Obama change the situation?

P. de C.: After keeping quiet on the issue for a long time, the new American president recently said that the return to negotiations and resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict were a priority and that he would get to work on it as soon as he came into office. Let's not forget that [Bill Clinton] the husband of his secretary of state previously made one of the best series of proposals for a solution to the conflict.

swissinfo-interview: Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

Key facts

Israel population: 7.1 million

1.6 million are Arabs with Israeli citizenship

Size: 20,770 square kilometres, about half the size of Switzerland

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CHRONOLOGY OF FIGHTING

December 27: Israel launches aerial bombardment on Gaza.

January 3: Israeli ground troups enter Gaza Strip.

January 8: UN calls for immediate ceasefire, leading to Israeli withdrawal.

January 16: Israeli-US agreement on combating Hamas weapons smuggling.

January 17: Israeli proclaims a unilateral ceasefire.

January 18: Hamas announces its own ceasefire, conditional on an Israeli withdrawal within one week. Israeli forces start withdrawing.

More than 1,300 Palestinians are reported to have been killed in the fighting. Around half of them are thought to be civilians.

Israel says it has lost a total of 13 killed.

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Swiss parliamentarians in Gaza

A delegation of four Swiss parliamentarians is due to arrive in Gaza on January 23 to inspect damage from the Israeli offensive.

The group comprises Antonio Hodgers of the Green Party, Carlo Sommaruga and Jean-Charles Rielle of the Social Democrats and Josef Zisyadis of the Communist Party.

They will meet Palestinian parliamentarians and hope to talk to Swiss aid workers and United Nations staff to find out their perspective on the situation.

In a statement the group called on the international community and Switzerland in particular, as guardian of the Geneva Convention, to produce an assessment of the humanitarian impact of the situation.

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