Despite initial denials from officials of both sides, sources are now indicating that an Israel-Hamas ceasefire in Gaza is imminent. According to Ha’aretz, the deal will put Palestinian Authority Presidential Guard members along the Karni, Sufa, Kerem Shalom, Erez, and Rafah border crossings, thereby fulfilling agreements that the U.S., Palestinian Authority, and Israel had reached prior to the 2005 Gaza disengagement. Hamas will play a secondary role nearby some of these crossings, monitoring the movement of civilians–though not goods–in and out of the strip.
This should be interpreted as the first major setback for Hamas since the party won the parliamentary elections over two years ago. At the very least, permitting Mahmoud Abbas’s Presidential Guard to assume control of border crossings represents a major political concession. If the Guard succeeds in stemming weapons smuggling, it will severely hamper Hamas’s military capabilities. Moreover, the ceasefire requires as a first step that Hamas stop firing rockets, which suggests that Israel’s recent operation in Gaza was highly effective in targeting key Hamas personnel and infrastructure.
Of course, the ceasefire also implies an Israeli concession, insofar as it shatters the hope that Hamas will be dislodged from Gaza by force. After all, the truce requires that Israel curtail its military operations entirely, including its targeting of Hamas officials. Still, Israel has located an opening for slowly chipping away at Hamas’s domestic power, with Abbas able to declare victory for having brokered an agreement that finally opens the border crossings-an accomplishment that Hamas’s rockets have decisively failed to achieve.
For the truce to succeed in the long run, bolstering the commitment and capabilities of the Presidential Guard must be a top priority. History should be a guide in this: last June, Hamas seized Gaza largely thanks to an ill-equipped and unmotivated Fatah force. Although the Bush administration has steered clear of the ceasefire negotiations, it should view the conditions of the Presidential Guard as critical to the peace process, which Vice-President Dick Cheney will address when he visits the region next week. Indeed, any breakdown in the Presidential Guard’s ability to control the borders would represent the final nail in the coffin for the still-nascent Annapolis “process.”