The hudna, or ceasefire, was officially born in March 2005 by virtue of an agreement, reached in Cairo with Egyptian mediation, between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the leadership of Hamas. Besides agreeing on the ceasefire, Abbas conceded to Hamas an unusually extreme formulation of the right of return of the 1948 refugees. The two sides agreed that Hamas would first participate in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, then be incorporated into the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Abbas also heads.
In the course of more than a year since then, Hamas has departed from the ceasefire on a few occasions. One was the abduction and murder of an Israeli from Jerusalem by an errant Hamas unit in Ramallah. Another, of greater relevance, was the firing of rockets into Israel after a truckload of Hamas rockets exploded in Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, killing Palestinian civilians, and the deed was erroneously blamed on Israel.
Now, as then, when its own constituency has suffered serious losses Hamas feels free to break its own ceasefire and attack Israelis. Now, as then, it did not wait for the results of any inquiry, by Israel or itself, authoritatively establishing responsibility for the incident in which a family of seven Palestinians were killed on a beach in the northern Gaza Strip. Unlike the previous violation of the ceasefire, however, this time Hamas has an additional motive: preventing Abu Mazen from holding a referendum designed to weaken its power base. Perhaps for this reason it also now appears intent on renewing suicide attacks inside Israel.
The Jabalya precedent implies that, after venting its anger on Israel, Hamas will revert to maintaining the hudna--to the extent it ever has: for months it has been aiding and abetting non-Hamas forces engaged in firing rockets at Israel; its own forces have been busy throughout preparing for another round of fighting; and when an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber killed a dozen civilians in Tel Aviv a couple of months back Hamas spokesmen enthusiastically endorsed the act.
So if anything is to be learned from the current, possibly temporary breakdown of the hudna, it concerns Hamas' overall attitude toward the ceasefire concept. Lest we forget, Hamas leaders have in recent months spoken repeatedly about their readiness to arrange a long term--30 or 40 year--hudna with Israel.
Today's hudna has been broken by Hamas because Palestinians were killed in nebulous circumstances after Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, then defended itself using minimal means against Palestinian rocket attacks. What, then, is tomorrow's hudna worth? According to Hamas' demands, 30 or 40 years of hudna will cost Israel a comprehensive withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the return of all Palestinian refugees to their pre-1948 homes and lands. Even if we acknowledge that the past year's ceasefire is, strictly speaking, a tahdiya, or pause, rather than the presumably more permanent hudna, this semantic distinction is hardly conducive to building Israeli confidence in Hamas' good intentions over the long term.
Yet Israelis clearly welcome the peace and quiet of a ceasefire, however tenuous and fragile. It saves lives, it's good for the economy, and it facilitates plans for unilateral disengagement. Because the recent pause was declared unilaterally by Hamas, it does not impose any political conditions on Israel. Hence the current Israeli decision to avoid serious escalation, in the hope that Hamas will revert to the ceasefire. The Prisoners' Document and Abu Mazen's referendum plans--issues in which Israel is well advised not to interfere--will undoubtedly play a role in Hamas' decision.
Yet if the Qassam rockets continue to fall on Sderot, the IDF will eventually have to act with massive force. This will set back any hope for either a bilateral political process, another unilateral withdrawal or a renewed ceasefire.
After an intensification of Israeli attacks on Palestinians, especially in Gaza, Hamas, for the first time since its victory in parliamentary elections and after over 15 months, declared that it has ended the ceasefire and will respond violently to these ever more frequent Israeli attacks.
There may be different causes for this dramatic announcement. It was followed by a claim of responsibility for a subsequent series of rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages.
One possible explanation is the emotional effect of the TV footage of a young girl who lost all her family on Gaza beach this last Friday after an Israeli artillery bombardment, and which has created a lot of sympathy and anger among the public in the Palestinian territories and worldwide.
The continuing Israeli attacks are also embarrassing Hamas. Hamas used to either respond directly or promise to respond to such attacks. This was part of the reason for its growing popularity among Palestinians and partly responsible for its victory in parliamentary elections. It has been difficult for Hamas, which has used the rhetoric of armed resistance to the aggression of the occupation to great effect, to be able to neither do nor say anything to the public after such attacks.
This may have led Hamas to the conclusion that continuing its ceasefire in spite of continued Israeli attacks would negatively affect its popularity.
The other possible cause may be internal Palestinian developments. Hamas has been put on the defensive vis-a-vis the PLO factions, because of the Prisoners' Document that President Mahmoud Abbas intends to take to a popular referendum.
That decision has caused Hamas some embarrassment. It cannot accept the document because it contradicts its political principles. But nor can it reject the document because it was drafted by prisoners who maintain a high level of credibility with the public.
The immediate reaction from Hamas after the killings on the beach seemed to try to link the Israeli escalation with the dispute between Abu Mazen and Hamas over the document.
The spokesperson of Hamas, in his first official reaction, said it didn't make sense to put Hamas under internal pressure to give political concessions through a referendum while the Palestinian people at the same time are subject to such escalation.
The leaflet of the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, was more direct. It accused any Palestinian group that put political pressure on Hamas to give up part of its political program of being collaborators with the Israeli occupation.
It is possible that Hamas, which is facing serious difficulties in running the Palestinian Authority, might see the escalation as a way to escape internal and external political embarrassment. In this case, this would be an area of common interest between the Israeli and Palestinian governments.
Any de-escalation accompanied by a revival of the political process on the basis of the roadmap, which includes the relevant resolutions of the Security Council, could be equally embarrassing for the two sides.
Israel seems to be under pressure to give a chance to political negotiations. Hamas is under similar pressure through the referendum initiative, which, if successful, will force Hamas also to give a chance to a political process. This makes the two governments similarly interested in escalation as a way out of this potential political embarrassment.
In this case, it is very important that a third party such as the Quartet or some of its members, especially the US, interferes to prevent the possible deterioration that will likely characterize the next phase in relations between the two sides.
Such intervention should include efforts to convince the sides to accept a resumption of political negotiations as well as efforts to extend the ceasefire by convincing Hamas to give it another chance and convincing Israel to stop its crazy and disproportionate campaign of assassinations and indiscriminate killings of Palestinians.
Israel also has to be pressured to stop the expansion of settlements, which has been one of the most important factors in increasing tension and removing hope.- Published 12/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Israelis would support a genuine ceasefire
an interview with Yehuda Ben Meir
bitterlemons: What do Israelis think about the notion of negotiating a peace treaty with the Palestinians under current conditions?
Ben Meir: Israeli public opinion has for many years strongly supported reaching a peace agreement. Even in the most difficult days of the second intifada, there always was an Israeli majority in favor of continuing negotiations with the Palestinians. On the other hand, as a result of the intifada and more recently Hamas' election victory, Israelis do not believe it is possible in the immediate future to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. While prior to the intifada a majority of Israelis believed it was possible, today only a third believe so. Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that in a question we introduced in 2005--do you believe an agreement can be reached if there is genuine democratization in the Palestinian Authority--the number rose to 50 percent.
bitterlemons: Do Israelis prefer a hudna, or ceasefire?
Ben Meir: I'm sure Israeli public opinion would massively support a truce or cessation of hostilities that is seen to be clearly in Israel's interest. But would Israelis be prepared to pay a substantial political price for a hudna that does not include clear Palestinian recognition of Israel and renunciation of terror? I doubt it, though I don't have specific data. The reason is that Israeli public opinion has serious doubts as to the intentions of the Palestinians, and specifically the [Hamas] leadership, and therefore would to a large degree see a hudna as a way for Palestinians to take a timeout in order to recoup and prepare for another round of violent terrorism.
bitterlemons: What does this tell us about Israeli confidence in the use of military force to stop terrorism?
Ben Meir: In 2004, 2005 and again this year we asked the public whether it believes terrorism can be eliminated by military action. The proportion who believed it could be eliminated went down from 27 to 20 percent during these past two years; those who believed military force could reduce the extent of terrorism but without eliminating it rose from 50 to 62 percent. A steady 10 or 11 percent say military action has no effect on the extent of terrorism, while seven percent (down from 12 percent in 2004), say military action increases terrorism. The Israeli public is realistic and doesn't believe in strictly military action to end the conflict.
bitterlemons: And the hudna as we've known it during the past year? How would you judge the public attitude toward this informal ceasefire?
Ben Meir: The Israeli public's desire not to end prospects for a peace agreement has survived the intifada, even if peace doesn't appear practical right now. Therefore, my opinion would be that an unconditional hudna kept by both sides with no political price, a policy of live and let live, would be supported by a vast majority of Israelis, with less than a third calling for continued military action until victory. If the Qassam rockets ceased being launched from Gaza and all was quiet, the majority of Israelis would, as they did right after disengagement, support a total ceasefire. A majority would even be prepared to differentiate between Gaza and the West Bank if terrorism stopped in Gaza but not in the West Bank.
bitterlemons: But the Qassams continue to be launched from Gaza, currently in large numbers. How does this affect Israeli attitudes?
Ben Meir: Due to the ongoing rocket attacks, the perception of a worsened security situation and the chaos in Gaza, Israelis are deeply disappointed with the results of the Gaza disengagement. This currently reduces support for [PM Ehud] Olmert's convergence or realignment plan to well below 50 percent. If the Israeli government doesn't find a quick and convincing solution for the Qassams, this could torpedo Olmert's disengagement project, since the public will fear that Qassams will be launched from the West Bank as well.- Published 12/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yehuda Ben Meir is senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, where he heads the Public Opinion and National Security Project. He is a former member of Knesset and former deputy foreign minister.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
The one-sided ceasefire has exhausted its tactical aim
by Khader Khader
When the term "ceasefire" is mentioned on the Palestinian street, everybody starts either making fun of it or they list the Israeli aggressions and killings of Palestinian civilians, the last of which was the Gaza seashore massacre where a whole family, except one daughter, Huda Ghalia, was killed while picnicking on the beach. All Israeli actions in occupied Palestinian territory, such as the construction of the wall, the flying checkpoints, house demolitions, etc., are understood as acts of aggression.
But another dimension to the ceasefire lies in its origins in the Cairo Declaration of March 2005, when Hamas agreed to some kind of unilateral ceasefire with Israel until the end of 2005. Hamas lived up to its promise and showed on several occasions remarkable self-restraint. In fact, the ceasefire was part of a deal agreed between Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas, who also lived up to his part of the bargain and held legislative elections in which Hamas won a majority and was presented with the chance to form a government at the beginning of 2006.
Trying to walk a thin line between resistance and government, Hamas kept up its rhetoric and rejected recognizing Israel and attaining international legitimacy but also refrained from executing any operation. The movement didn't want to give Israel any excuse to target its leaders, something that could cause the collapse of the government. Nevertheless, Israel continued its incursions, arrests and killings and Hamas' tactical extension of the ceasefire didn't stop either the concerted external or internal campaigns against it.
Now, after three months, almost no salaries have been paid to more than 160,000 PA employees, the rate of poverty is increasing and there is a shortage of medicine due to the international embargo. President Abbas has seized the initiative to send Hamas a message that this current situation cannot continue and there is a need for a courageous decision. The referendum on the prisoners' "national conciliation" document was his answer.
According to recent Palestinian public opinion polls, that referendum will be supported by at least 60 percent of voters. If true, that would force Hamas to either accept the people's will and join President Abbas' political program or step down.
Hamas' options to overcome the current crisis and dilemma are very limited, but the most logical option is to end the ceasefire and resume military operations against Israel. Any such escalation would make the referendum almost impossible to organize. Hamas has also been stung by Fateh criticism that the Islamic Resistance Movement promised change, reform and continued resistance, and none has so far happened.
Internationally, no one has wanted Hamas as a political partner. Before the PLC elections, western, Arab and Palestinian diplomats used to talk about the need to push Hamas to the political arena. But when Hamas entered the political stage, no one was ready to talk to them. Instead, everyone seemed to have been planning to get Hamas into politics simply so it would give up resistance. No one expected the overwhelming victory, and the only contingency plan was to punish ordinary Palestinians for their democratic choice.
Hamas' interest now lies in ending the ceasefire. This also serves the purpose of Israel, which wants a military movement and not a political movement. Both Hamas and Israel will gain from an end to the ceasefire, but the losers will be innocent civilians on both sides.
Palestinians, Fateh and Hamas, are using all methods to regain their rights so that stability and peace can reign. I wonder: what will be the explanation and rhetoric of the international community which collaborated in pushing Hamas to end the ceasefire when Hamas steps down and fails at governing? Will President Abbas be able to deliver? Or is he in need of another ceasefire agreement with Hamas? And at what cost this time? - Published 12/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Khader Khader is media analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Media and Communications, JMCC.
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