by Peter Hirschberg
(IPS) JERUSALEM --
it possible that after a thousand days of trying to bludgeon one another into submission, Israelis and Palestinians, battered and bloodied, have realized that neither side is about to capitulate in a second uprising that has cost more than 3,000 lives, mostly Arab, and left tens of thousands injured?
Cajoled, pressured and squeezed, both the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups announced a three-month truce June 29 without preconditions, saying there would be no attacks inside Israel or on soldiers and settlers inside the West Bank and Gaza. They were joined, hours later, by the mainstream Fatah movement of Yasser Arafat, which declared it was ending attacks for six months.
A separate agreement between the Israeli government and the new government of the Palestinian Authority then saw Israeli tanks and troops rolling out of the northern Gaza Strip just hours after the cease-fire declarations.
By the next day, Palestinian and Israeli officers who for the last 33 months have been shooting at each other, shook hands and together mapped out their new positions in the Strip. Israeli roadblocks melted away, and Palestinians again moved freely along the main north-south road in the Strip, which had been out of bounds to them since the uprising began.
These initial signs of normalcy represent the greatest hope since the fighting began in September 2000 that the shattered peace process can be revived. Despite the hatred, suspicion and deep distrust, most Palestinians and Israelis, fatigued by the seemingly interminable fighting, want their leaders to find some way back to the table.
Beyond the stiff pressure that was applied by the United States, Europe and Egypt, groups like Hamas ultimately agreed to a truce because they realized that Palestinians -- strangled by months of paralysing Israeli military restrictions -- needed a respite.
If most Israelis had not themselves made the connection between the ongoing occupation and their country's economic decline, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made it for them when he asserted recently that Israel could no longer afford to rule 3.5 million Palestinians. And, Israelis want to be able to get on a bus or sit down in a restaurant without having to worry about being blown up.
As one Tel Aviv kiosk owner put it: "Palestinians want to go out to work, without a Merkava tank barrel swinging at them, and Israelis want to get on the bus to work in the morning without being blown through the roof."
But fatigue can quickly give way to anger when lives are lost. The frailty of the truce was already evident July 1 when a renegade Palestinian group, which said it did not recognize the ceasefire, claimed responsibility for the death of a Bulgarian construction worker after gunmen fired on an Israeli truck carrying laborers near the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
Few on either side believe hostilities are truly over. Both sides are convinced the other will be the first to breach the ceasefire, and each insists the other make more concessions for progress in implementing the U.S.-backed "roadmap" peace plan.
Israeli leaders have never accepted the idea of a temporary ceasefire -- or hudna in Islamic terms. They say this is an internal Palestinian agreement and cannot be a substitute for the disarming and dismantling of militant groups in the West Bank and Gaza, as the road map stipulates. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has referred to it as a "ticking bomb" that will "maintain the infrastructure of terror."
Israel fears that groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which it has targeted in daily raids in the territories, will regroup and prepare a new wave of attacks. "My fear is that they will use this period to prepare a new arsenal of bombs and to bring in weapons from outside," Israeli Minister Gideon Ezra told IPS.
The ceasefire agreed on by the various factions, says Ezra, is an understanding among them that there will be no attacks on Israelis, but the Palestinian Authority has "to do a whole lot more, like arresting terrorists."
The United States has made the same argument. President George W. Bush said recently that truce could not replace the dismantling of Hamas. That message was repeated after the ceasefire declaration: "Anything that reduces violence is a step in the right direction," said White House spokesman Ashley Snee. But she added: "Under the roadmap, parties have an obligation to dismantle terrorist infrastructures. There is more work to be done."
Those close to Sharon are concerned that leaders in the U.S., along with European leaders, and a large section of the Israeli public, will settle for a situation in which the truce holds and there are no attacks, even if this is not accompanied by a determined Palestinian effort to uproot armed groups. Then, they fear, the onus will be on Israel to make concessions.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is not about to take on the armed militias at least for now. He has preferred dialogue over confrontation, which he says could spark civil war. Opinion polls indicate that Hamas commands some 25 percent support.
Asked if the issue of disarmament had come up in truce talks with Abbas earlier, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, was emphatic: "One hundred percent no. No. Big no."
In the long run Abbas may have no choice but to battle Hamas, which has never accepted the roadmap, and does not recognize the legitimacy of Israel. Abbas is hoping that a ceasefire, followed by progress on the diplomatic front and the lifting of crushing Israeli travel restrictions, will convince Palestinians there is a payoff for ending armed struggle. If the lives of ordinary Palestinians begin to improve, he reckons, then the pool of enmity that Hamas feeds off will begin to evaporate.
Israeli leaders have rejected the list of demands that accompanied the truce announcement, specifically the release of all Palestinian security prisoners and the lifting of the travel ban on Yasser Arafat. In the absence of hostilities, however, Sharon will have to refrain from launching military raids and ordering helicopters to carry out "targeted killings," as Israel calls assassinations of leading Palestinian militants.
A situation of relative calm, says Ezra, could present Israel with a dilemma. "If we have information on a suicide bomber who is planning to infiltrate Israel, what do we do?" he says. "If we pass this information onto the Palestinians, what will they do? I hope they will lock this person up, but I'm not at all convinced they will."
Israel has asked the U.S. for guarantees that the Palestinian Authority will dismantle armed militias and not settle for a cessation of attacks. The Israeli demand is a reflection of the absence of trust between the two sides, as well as the pivotal role the U.S. will have to play as arbitrator. The agreement between the sides on the Israeli troop pullback in Gaza was the result of some vigorous U.S. arm-twisting.
Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, a senior Palestinian Authority official suggests that it is the very absence of euphoria over the latest attempt to extinguish the fighting that might be the key to its success. "The bitter experience of the past has taught us to be very, very cautious," he says. "Perhaps this is healthy."
Zaydeh adds: "This is not a breakthrough. This is a serious beginning on the path of bringing back trust between the two peoples, and to returning to the situation prior to September 2000. Is it possible? It is very, very possible."
July 1, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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