Between calm and a truce

Among Palestinians the hot topic of the day is what exactly is the nature of the understandings that appear to have been reached between President Mahmoud Abbas and the factions. There have been many educated guesses–some say a truce or ceasefire was agreed upon while others say what happened was simply a "calming" and not a truce in the true sense.

The wording is very important, and goes some way to explain the attitude of the factions. Abu Mazen knew that the factions would not respond to a demand for a full truce if they did not get guarantees in return that Israel would halt all its military operations against the Palestinians, especially the assassinations, incursions and house demolitions. Israel has responded to the current calm unenthusiastically, and is simply issuing official statements. Abu Mazen has received no formal guarantees of anything yet.

It is in this context that the statements of Hamas and other factions must be understood. The factions have already declared that what is happening is only a calming of the situation, with Hamas saying that, "it would not accept a truce except in the context of the higher interests of the people and an integral policy congruent with the challenges of the coming phase". The movement said it considered this an inappropriate time for any talk about a truce or ceasefire since the Israeli army is continuing its crimes against the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.

Statement after statement from the factions come back to the same point. What matters is what happens on the ground, and for as long as people are killed–recently a three-year-old girl, Rahma Abu Shamas, on January 26–the factions will take this as a signal that Israel is not prepared to encourage the calm.

According to PA sources, Abu Mazen has received "definite promises" that the Israeli government will halt assassinations and incursions, and has informed the factions of this. The sources said Abu Mazen did not release his statement about the truce until he had confirmed the Israeli position and after the meeting between Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz and former public security minister Mohammed Dahlan, which resulted in an understanding to transfer security authority in five West Bank cities to the PA and to further deploy Palestinian security forces in the northern and southern Gaza Strip. An Israeli official had previously announced that the army would halt "targeted liquidations" of Palestinian activists if Palestinian police enforce calm and security.

But the factions are liable to want formal guarantees of a cessation of Israeli violence, as well as clear signals of intent, including a release of prisoners. One Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahhar, was recently quoted as saying that "We will not grant calm except in exchange for a national price, the first of which is the release of all prisoners. We will not allow the calm to continue if any prisoner of any political color remains in jail."

The factions also remain skeptical regarding what any ceasefire is likely to bring on the political track. One anonymous Hamas source recently told me that it "is not right for Hamas to offer Abu Mazen a truce [simply] for him to return to the same erroneous political track that was taken by Arafat". On this track, he added, Hamas "must have a role".

Thus the factions are likely to remain extremely cautious for the time being. None of them trust Israeli statements, and most remember that the hudna of 2003 was ended by Israeli actions. While a temporary calm has been called, the ball is firmly in Israel’s court if it is to turn into something more lasting and solid.