The September 11 attacks on the United States appear to have put the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at a crossroads. On the one hand, that event and its aftermath may now encourage the Israeli government to intensify its pressure on Palestinians, which will bring about Palestinian escalation and further deepening of the one-year-old vicious circle of violence. On the other hand, it is also possible that American efforts to set the stage for plans in the Middle and Far East could bring a reduction in violence and a return to the negotiating table.
Already, one consequence has been the use of American leverage to get a serious commitment for a cessation of hostilities. The Palestinian Authority seems to be taking this ceasefire seriously. President Arafat was very straightforward in his declaration and in his appeal to factional leaders, who were in turn very positive and receptive.
And, in the immediate aftermath of the Peres-Arafat meeting, the results were dramatic. Hamas stopped its suicide operations inside Israel completely and Fateh has for the most part stopped attacks against settlers in the Palestinian-occupied territories. At the same time, the Palestinians have intensified Intifada activities like mass demonstrations and cultural gatherings. Some of these events have been to commemorate the first anniversary of the Intifada and to ensure its continuity via means that do not contradict with the ceasefire.
Israel, on the other hand, brought its assassination policy to a halt, with the exception of one incident in Hebron last week. Incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory were fewer immediately after the meeting, with the exception of the continuous incursions and shelling in Rafah and Hebron.
At the same time, however, one cannot help but note that the number of Palestinian casualties and injuries has increased dramatically under the recent ceasefire. The reason seems to be that the Israeli army does not really differentiate in its activities between Palestinian armed resistance and the popular and unarmed Palestinian demonstrations. Most of the killing since the ceasefire has happened as a result of the Israeli army’s treatment of unarmed demonstrators.
Further, it is notable that the clear and admitted drop in violence was not enough to convince Israel to end restrictions on Palestinian movement that have been a major source of anger and violence on the Palestinian side. Those restrictions have not prevented Palestinians with violent intentions from getting to their destinations, but are instead a means of collective punishment preventing ordinary Palestinians from going to school, university, the hospital, their work, and so on.
The attack on the northern Gaza Strip settlement one week after the Peres-Arafat meeting can be understand, therefore, as a clear warning that for the ceasefire to stick, it must be consolidated by the immediate alleviation of restrictions on movement and political initiatives that make the ceasefire real for Palestinians on the ground. Without this, Arafat’s task of maintaining the ceasefire is difficult, if not impossible, and arrests of Palestinians that break the ceasefire become laughable among the general public.
Given the new climate, this ceasefire has a chance, not only of sticking, but also of developing towards negotiations on the Palestinian-Israeli relationship, rather than talks on the confrontations. But it is threatened by two uncertainties – will Israel maintain the closure policy and continue to kill Palestinians? And will the United States administration consolidate the ceasefire with political initiatives that give Palestinians the impression that they might be able to move towards their objective of ending the occupation through peaceful talks?
If these uncertainties are not quickly resolved, it seems likely that we will now return to another round of violence – one worse than any witnessed so far.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is the publisher of the Palestine Report.