A function of Palestinian internal politics

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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.

One way or another, the outcome will be temporary.

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