Palestinian groups say ceasefire at risk

Palestinian groups are growing increasingly agitated at Israel's refusal to allow more goods into Gaza to improve the general situation there.

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RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // With negotiations over a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas at an impasse, a Hamas spokesman warned that the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit could become another Ron Arad, the Israeli airman who disappeared over Lebanon in 1986. Palestinian groups are growing increasingly agitated at Israel's refusal to allow more goods into Gaza to improve the general situation there.

They see this as an Israeli breach of the ceasefire agreement, which came into effect in June, and are blaming Israel for putting the truce at risk. Israel says the release of Cpl Shalit - captured in a 2006 cross-border raid - was key to the ceasefire, while Hamas said his release would be conditional on Israel easing border restrictions. Yesterday, Israel closed crossings into Gaza, after a rocket from the strip was fired across the border. The rocket landed in a field and caused no damage.

"Israel is all the time looking for any excuse to close the gates to Gaza," said Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to the Hamas foreign ministry in the coastal strip. "What is coming into Gaza in terms of goods and materials that can reduce unemployment and improve the economy is not acceptable." Gazans have felt little tangible improvement in their lives or economy as a result of the ceasefire. It is this lack of improvement that sparked the Hamas warning, said Mr Yousef.

"Hamas stalled the [prisoner] negotiations because it sees that Israel is not fulfilling its obligations under the ceasefire," said Mr Yousef. "Until Israel sticks to the terms of the agreement, Hamas is not going to address the issue of Gilad Shalit." According to the United Nations, the amount of goods crossing into Gaza remains far below locals' needs and is 46 per cent less than in May 2007, the month before the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Israel maintains a complete ban on exports from Gaza, decimating the local industry. The UN estimates that 95 per cent of Gaza's industries have closed down. In July, only 990 people were allowed to cross the Rafah border into Egypt, compared with 18,000 in May 2007. One-third of all requests to leave Gaza for medical treatment were rejected by Israel that month. The Gaza Strip also continues to suffer fuel shortages, and the Hamas government has banned drivers from powering their cars with cooking gas for fear of shortages during the coming month of Ramadan. An estimated 8,000 people have converted their petrol engines to run on cooking gas because of a lack of petrol. Diesel engines have been converted to run on cooking oil.

Cpl Shalit was captured in 2006. Since then, there has been little evidence that the French-born soldier is still alive. A letter to his parents, obtained during former US president Jimmy Carter's trip to the region in April, is one of the few positive signs. In July, Israel engaged in a highly publicised prisoner swap with Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant group, that saw five Lebanese prisoners and the bodies of some 180 Palestinians and others killed in Lebanon during Israel's invasion and occupation of the south, swapped for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, also captured in 2006.

This week Israel announced that it would free another 199 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of goodwill toward Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. The move follows criticism that Israel was willing only to cut deals with those who it was locked in armed conflict with, rather than over the negotiating table. Both decisions, said Yoram Schweitzer, of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, have put pressure on Hamas, which is also negotiating for its fighters to be released.

"Hamas has found itself in a situation, especially after Israel decided to release prisoners to Fatah; Hizbollah had an achievement and Fatah had an achievement," said Mr Schweitzer. "Hamas has nothing." The threat to turn Cpl Shalit into another Ron Arad, said Mr Schweitzer, was a kind of "psychological warfare", playing on the perception in Israel that the lack of Israeli willingness to negotiate with Hizbollah at the time sealed his fate. Ron Arad was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and his fate remains unknown.

His case became a cause célèbre in Israel where some still believe he or his body is held by Hizbollah or Iran. Hizbollah says it holds no information about him, but it is believed that the fate of the soldier has been used as a bargaining tool between the two sides. Mr Schweitzer rejected Hamas's reasoning that the lack of improvement in Gaza justified ending the Egyptian-mediated negotiations. "Hamas has not ended the [rocket] bombardment, which continues from time to time, and did not take steps to bring negotiations over Shalit to completion. So I think Hamas is playing with the cards because it did not get anything other than that in Gaza, people are living [without Israeli military presence]."

But the quiet is not enough for Hamas, Mr Yousef said. "Hamas negotiators told the Egyptian mediator that the [Shalit] file would be closed until Israel shows it is serious about the ceasefire and that Gazans' lives could go back to some kind of normal." @Email:okarmi@thenational.ae