Ceasefire would inhibit Hamas arms-smuggling, but improve Gaza economy, German FM says

British foreign secretary claims ‘more open access in and out of Gaza’ is part of any longer-term solution to the conflict

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Jerusalem, November 20, 2012 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Jerusalem, November 20, 2012 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which is reportedly imminent, will likely be based on a reconfiguration of entry restrictions on the Egypt-Gaza border in return for an end to rocket fire on Israel, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle suggested on Tuesday.

“It is about preventing arms-smuggling to Gaza, but also about creating economically viable perspectives for Gaza — these aspects need be seen as interconnected,” he told reporters in Jerusalem, referring to current efforts to achieve a ceasefire.

“Egypt is playing a crucial role [in current ceasefire talks] because it exerts influence on Hamas in Gaza. And we need to assume that arms-smuggling took place from Sinai to Gaza in the past,” he said early Tuesday afternoon. “If we want to create a long-term ceasefire it’s important that we think together about measures that could be taken, perhaps together with the international community, to prevent this arms-smuggling. This is certainly one of the most important criteria for a stable, long-term ceasefire.”

Westerwelle refused to go into detail while negotiations were ongoing, but in mentioning “economically viable perspectives,” he may have been referring to an easing of restrictions on crossings into Gaza.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who spoke about Operation Pillar of Defense in the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon, likewise said that “more open access in and out of Gaza is part of any longer-term solution.”

While Jerusalem is unlikely to lift its naval blockade of Gaza, Israeli analysts have said repeatedly in recent days that a truce could involve Egypt opening the Rafah terminal with Gaza for passenger traffic and trade, which would effectively end Israel’s economic responsibility over Hamas-ruled Gaza and hand it to the Muslim Brotherhood, which rules Egypt.

“This could mean that Gaza would get its fuel and other commodities from Egypt, while Israel would continue to supply electricity. Egyptian ports could begin to handle the flow of goods in and out of Gaza, and Israel would gradually phase out the commercial activities that pass through the six terminals it now operates into Gaza,” Channel 2’s Ehud Yaari wrote in Foreign Affairs.

“Hamas’s primary concern is an economic one,” Gaza political scientist Ayman Shaheen said. “It wants to establish its rule in Gaza with no blockade and no economic constraints. Hamas basically wants to prove to the residents of Gaza that it can provide them with a decent life.”

Westerwelle is said to have played a part in helping broker a ceasefire arrangement, which was set be finalized by Tuesday night.

Westerwelle arrived in Jerusalem Monday night and held meetings with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before he traveled to Ramallah to speak with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He then returned to Jerusalem, from there continuing on to Cairo for talks with his counterpart Mohamed Kamel Amr. (A scheduled meeting with President Mohammed Morsi was cancelled due to the death of Morsi’s sister, who succumbed to cancer.) Later on Tuesday night, Westerwelle was expected back in Tel Aviv for a meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Speaking to mostly German reporters at the King David Hotel, Westerwelle reiterated Berlin’s position to hold Hamas responsible for the current escalation with Israel.

“One thing is clear: The cause of this escalation is the rocket fire from Gaza to Israel’s south. That cannot be justified. The Israeli government does not have to live with this; it has the right to protect its civilian population,” he said.

Asked whether he considered Israeli airstrikes on Gaza a “disproportionate response,” Westerwelle said that the rocket attacks didn’t start last week, but that thousands of missiles have been fired at Israel in recent months. “It is understandable that at some time a point is reached where Israel’s government starts taking steps to defend its population.” At the same time, he added, it is also important to remain proportionate and to try to de-escalate the situation.

Meanwhile, Hague, the British foreign secretary, reiterated London’s position that Hamas bears “principal responsibility” for starting the current crisis. Yet he called on Israel to exercise restraint in its response and urged the government to refrain from launching a ground operation in Gaza.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Hague said the government had “quickly called on Israel to seek every opportunity to de-escalate their military response and to observe international humanitarian law and avoid civilian casualties.”

“We have also warned that a ground invasion of Gaza could lengthen the conflict, sharply increase civilian casualties and erode international support for Israel’s position. We wish to see an agreed ceasefire that stops the rocket attacks against Israel and ends Israeli military operations,” he declared.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
British Foreign Secretary William Hague (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

“There is no military solution to the crisis in Gaza or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace becomes harder to achieve with each military confrontation, each loss of life and the creation of facts on the ground. The only way to get the Palestinian people the state that they need and deserve, and the Israeli people the security and peace they are entitled to, is through a negotiated two-state solution, and time for this is now running out.”

Hague called on both Palestinians and Israelis to return to the negotiating table and urged the international community, led by the US, to “make a huge effort to push the peace process forward.”

He also said that London has been advising the Palestinian Authority against the plan to apply for the status of a nonmember state at the United Nations General Assembly. “We judge that this would make it harder to secure a return to negotiations and could have very serious consequences for the Palestinian Authority.”

The PA is expected to push for such a vote in the GA on November 29. Israel and the US are vehemently opposed to such a move.

Elhanan Miller contributed to this report.

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