Countdown to a truce?

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Egyptian mediators held “friendly and constructive” talks with Palestinian resistance leaders in Gaza this week in the hope of working out a cease-fire with the Israeli occupation army.

Deputy-chief of the Egyptian intelligence, Colonel Mustafa El- Beheiri, met with the leaders of all Palestinian factions on Monday pressing them to accept a cease-fire with Israel and to “appreciate the immense pressures being exerted on the Palestinian Authority”.

The leaders of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, PFLP and other factions agreed to study El- Beheiri’s proposals and report back to him within a week. The Egyptian delegation seems to have made considerable progress towards convincing Hamas and other factions to accept a hudna, or truce, with Israel.

According to Palestinian sources, the main points of contention centred on whether the cease-fire would cover only Israel proper, as demanded by Hamas, or include the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as Israel insists. Hamas and other Palestinian groups have argued that the resistance could not and should not be stopped as long Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers continued to rampage throughout Palestinian population centres.

“The resistance is a reaction to the occupation. The occupation is not a reaction to the resistance, the resistance will therefore continue as long as the occupation does,” said Hamas leader Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantisi who narrowly escaped an Israeli assassination attempt last week.

Although Hamas has tacitly indicated that it would accept an “honourable cease-fire that serves the interests of our people”, the movement would not accept a cease-fire at any price and without reciprocal Israeli actions. Hamas, it seems, is trying to reach the best possible cease-fire deal with Israel rather than obstruct the roadmap as vociferously, purported by the United States.

“Israel and her guardian-ally, the US, are trying to impose on us a cease-fire that is worse than a surrender. We won’t accept that,” said Hamas leader, Ismael Haniya, following the meeting with El- Beheiri. “They want us to stop the resistance, but make no clear commitment to stopping Jewish terror and Nazi-like brutality against our people,” he added.

Hamas is further demanding the release of thousands of Palestinian detainees incarcerated in Israel detention camps, most of them without charge or trial.

The same stance was more or less voiced by the leaders of the Islamic Jihad, Fatah and the PFLP who insisted that any cease-fire agreement would have to meet key Palestinian demands. These include ending the Israeli occupation of the PA-run autonomous enclaves, putting an end to recurrent Israeli incursions into Palestinian population centres and stopping Israel’s assassination policy targeting resistance activists as well as political leaders.

Fatah is also insisting that any cease-fire agreement must put an end to the Israeli siege on PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, now confined for the second consecutive year to his badly- battered Ramallah headquarters.

Nonetheless, the vagueness and uncertainty surrounding the “reciprocity element” in the proposed cease-fire agreement is forcing Hamas to be overly cautious and even apprehensive as to the real Israeli and American motives. This anxiety is not without a reason. Sharon told the Israeli Knesset on Sunday that Israel would continue to target Palestinian resistance fighters, irrespective of any prospective cease-fire.

If Sharon meant what he said, and there is no evidence suggesting otherwise, the contemplated cease-fire would not see the light even for one day, no matter how much good-will Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups are willing to display. Likewise, the Bush administration actually publicly voiced a modicum of consternation over Egyptian efforts to get Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups to agree to a cease-fire.

White House Spokesman Ari Fliecher said the US would want to see Hamas “dismantled” rather than included in the peace process. His statements were followed by a plethora of remarks by President Bush, calling on “the free world” to fight Hamas and sever financial aide to it.

US Senator Richard Lugar went so far as to suggest that US troops should be dispatched to fight Hamas. Hamas scoffed at Lugar’s suggestion, calling it both “ignorant and stupid”.

“Hamas is a national liberation movement fighting a sinister foreign occupation. It seems that Lugar’s tongue functions much more swiftly than his brain does,” said Hasan Silwadi, a Hamas representative in the Ramallah region. “Doesn’t he know that Israel, with all its military might and Nazi-like brutality, has been unable to defeat Hamas. Our resistance will end only when the occupation ends.”

The present bargaining in Gaza came in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest and most violent weeks in the occupied territories, which began with the failed Israeli attempt on 10 June to assassinate Hamas leader Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantisi. Hamas reacted the following day when a young Palestinian boy from Hebron blew himself up aboard an Israeli bus in West Jerusalem, killing himself and 17 Israelis. For the next 72 hours, Israel reacted by rocketing “targets” in Gaza’s crowded streets, killing three resistance activists and as many as 27 civilians, including 10 children and several women.

Israeli officials took matters a step further by declaring that Hamas political leaders, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, would be assassinated. Hamas reacted by warning that its fighters and bombers would assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon if its leaders were targeted by Israel. The killings and counter-killings and warnings and counter-warnings seemed to have fostered a semblance of a balance of terror between the two sides, which probably explains the relative calm in the past few days.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who has described the spate of Israeli assassinations in Gaza as “state terror”, was due to conduct a fresh round of talks with resistance leaders in Gaza. Abbas reportedly plans to discuss the so-called Gaza-Bethlehem First plan whereby the Israeli military would withdraw from northern Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem in return for halting resistance attacks.

But resistance leaders are likely to seek guarantees from Abbas that the proposed plan would lead to a complete Israeli withdrawal from all the autonomous enclaves — namely 65 per cent of the Gaza Strip and nearly 42 per cent of the West Bank — as well as ending Israeli incursions and freeing Palestinian political prisoners. Since Abbas would not be able to deliver any guarantees as such, he would have to turn to the US for an answer.

So, the question remains, will the US exert pressure on Sharon to implement the roadmap?

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