Since the outbreak of the Intifada nearly two years ago, groups on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide have been involved in attempts to organize some sort of ceasefire. Recently these initiatives appear to be accelerating and proliferating. One effort is unilateral; others involve both sides working together. Some are drafted in codes that are difficult for many outsiders to decipher. Others look simply naéve. Yet taken together, they cannot be ignored.
The unilateral initiative, much talked about in recent weeks, is understood by Israelis to have commenced with an attempt among Palestinians at the “field level” of Tanzim, along with leaders from Hamas and other organizations and with European Union assistance, to declare a ceasefire. It was interrupted briefly, but not stopped, by the Israeli assassination of Salah Shehadeh in Gaza in late July. More recently it apparently involves an attempt to draft a new, general document of understanding between the PLO and Hamas outlining the current aims of the Palestinian resistance and the means to be adopted in pursuing them. It proposes the formation of a unified command that appears to reflect discontent with the current Palestinian leadership.
From the Israeli standpoint, the disturbing part of this otherwise interesting exercise in self-reform is that the unilateral ceasefire being discussed is actually not mentioned explicitly in the document, and in any event is only partial: Hamas, according to reports, would, if it agreed, be permitted to attack Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza but not inside Israel. This is reminiscent of an earlier Fatah-Hamas agreement reached in Cairo in December 1995, which allegedly permitted Hamas to carry out suicide bombings only in areas outside Palestinian Authority control, i.e., only inside Israel. In other words, seven years ago it was convenient for Arafat and the PA to allow violence to continue outside the West Bank and Gaza. Now, for a variety of political and tactical reasons involving Israeli reoccupation and the Israeli reaction to suicide bombings, the opposite is the case: violence is okay inside the West Bank and Gaza, but not inside Israel.
This effort does not appear to reflect any sort of comprehensive strategic recognition on the part of Palestinians that violence will not advance their political goals; rather, the attitude toward a ceasefire is selective and tactical.
A second effort ostensibly does better. Initiated by Israeli Defense Minister Ben Eliezer–it is known as “Gaza and Bethlehem first.” It calls for a gradual takeover of security control by Palestinian forces, first in Gaza and the southern West Bank, followed by Israeli withdrawal from parts of Area A it has reoccupied. It is based on an assessment that Palestinians are indeed suffering from war fatigue and wish to abandon violence, i.e., that Israel has “won” the war in the sense of persuading most Palestinian leaders to accept a ceasefire that offers no concrete political payoff beyond Israeli withdrawal to positions held prior to the Intifada.
This initiative is problematic from two standpoints. First, there is no Israeli commitment that, once quiet is restored, realistic political negotiations will be resumed: not over Sharon’s a-state-in-50-percent-of-the-West-Bank-plan, but rather over something like the Saudi/Clinton plans. Hence even the best of ceasefires is not likely to last. Secondly, it is still not clear that Palestinian security commanders have fully internalized the need to reconstitute their security forces so that they dedicate themselves to preventing Palestinian terrorism. Too many Palestinian “reformers” understand the rebuilding of a security force as intended to more effectively oppose Israeli incursions rather than to stamp out terrorism. And Hamas and Islamic Jihad reject this entire ceasefire plan.
The third and most intriguing of the current initiatives is the “hudna” or traditional Arab tribal ceasefire. Initiated by a group of private Israelis, at one point about half a year ago the “hudna” idea even held the allegiance of president of Israel Moshe Katzav and was approved by the Palestinian Cabinet. Currently the organizers seek to stage a kind of mass “happening” in Jerusalem, with the blessings of Arafat, where a ceasefire will be declared at the popular level.
This kind of grassroots enthusiasm for peacemaking is impressive and encouraging. But it is doubtful that it will work. For one, Palestinian militants are not likely participants in the Jerusalem meeting. Nor would the Israeli delegation necessarily represent all key sectors of society, such as the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Hence the meeting could take place and a “popular” ceasefire be declared, yet violence could continue.
Perhaps most important, the “hudna” idea is clearly rejected by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who seeks Palestinian surrender rather than reconciliation, while Arafat’s support is more a liability than an advantage in the eyes of the Israeli public, due to his lack of credibility. Indeed, both Sharon and US President George W. Bush, another key player whose support is vital, insist on the removal of Arafat before any serious progress can take place.
In general, none of the ceasefire initiatives appears to reflect a genuine process of soul searching on both sides regarding the root causes of the current conflict and ways to deal with them. Rather, they reflect war fatigue.
And under prevailing circumstances this is probably not a sufficient foundation for a stable ceasefire. With all due encouragement for the efforts of sincere people on both sides, no sustained progress, military or political, appears likely as long as not one of the three key leaders adopts a realistic strategy for ending the violence and returning to a fruitful peace process. And when that does happen–we won’t need private ceasefire initiatives.
Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”