Palestinian-Israeli peace process: Guns can be put to silence, but for how long?

By Alastair Crooke and Beverley Milton-Edwards,

Special to Gulf News | 06-12-2003

When is a ceasefire more than a ceasefire? When it builds agreement amongst contesting groups and has the potential to transform into a real political process. Hamas is signalling such an opportunity in the crisis between Palestinians and Israelis. Ignoring it may have a price.

The prospects for the roadmap for peace between Israelis and Palestinians have taken on a sepulchral aspect. Iraq is now the centre of American attention. The Palestinian National Authority, along with its leader, is frail, and stands in some disarray following the deep divisions created by the bitter experience of the failed Mahmoud Abbas government and unilateral June ceasefire. Israel too seems at odds over what to do next.

Despite the poor outlook, there is a noticeable reluctance to declare the peace process dead. The international community fears the void that could be exploited by radical Islamist forces from outside the Palestinian arena.

Deeply divided

There are many diagnoses of why the peace process has so far failed, but central was the heated debate over how to achieve the initial and key step in the road map: that Palestinians should "immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence against Israelis everywhere."

Ostensibly the debate was straightforward. On the one hand there was the view, strongly held by the Israeli government and endorsed in the roadmap, that an end to violence against Israelis should be accomplished by the Palestinian National Authority turning its forces on Islamists in their midst, and through arrests and other forceful action, to repress and dismantle Islamist infrastructure.

The counter-view held by many, but not all, in the Palestinian camp, was that this was not feasible. They argued that an end to violence should be achieved through agreement amongst all Palestinian factions in the expectation that Israel would respond positively to this initiative. This, it was hoped, would open the route to political progress.

These were the outward terms of debate, but concealed beneath were wider issues. The impact of the failure of the June ceasefire on these broader considerations, as much as the ending of the ceasefire itself, has accentuated the sense of an opportunity missed: an opportunity that may elude for some time to come, certainly until the situation in Iraq is clearer.

Goodwill and demise

The June ceasefire demonstrated the paradox of a peace process that ultimately depends for its success on the goodwill of Islamists. These groups have demonstrated, time and again, that without their active assent there can be no viable peace process.

The Islamists are not an amalgam of disparate and ad hoc militias, but a significant, historic popular movement rooted in all levels of Palestinian society. Yet the present peace process envisages their destruction.

Essentially this is the paradox: both the need for their participation for the process to progress, and the expectation that they should also be a party to their own disarmament and dismantling. We seek both their goodwill and demise!

Islamist support

There is, in short, the practical need to include the Islamists. Without their acquiescence, armed resistance will continue; but their engagement is also important for the legitimacy of any outcome in the eyes of the Palestinian public and of regional players such as Syria and Iran. An accord between Israel and some Palestinian negotiators that simply ignores a major current of Palestinian opinion is unlikely to last.

Without the legitimacy of Islamist involvement, it will prove impossible to build the necessary consensus amongst Palestinians to overcome the dead weight of mistrust and move any political process forward. Such legitimacy may be most at risk after the failure of the June ceasefire.

Events in Iraq too will affect Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If the region becomes more radical, the crossover between Iraq and the Palestinian/Israeli issue will be accentuated. If Hamas is pressed by Israeli military attacks on its leadership, rebuffed in its ceasefire efforts, and subject to international ostracism and censure, the divide between Palestinians simply may become too wide. Such a divide could be exploited by external radical Islamist elements.

Without a critical mass of popular political support, nothing can be achieved. The days of top-down engineered political solutions have passed with the frustrations, anger and mistrust produced by ordinary Palestinians' experiences in the last three years.

Art of deceit?

Any ceasefire or hudna announced by Palestinian Islamists has traditionally been regarded as no more than a tactical tool to meet short-term goals, but at the same time was marginal to the central aim of armed struggle against Israel in the name of Islam.

The international community viewed an Islamist ceasefire with deep scepticism. Such an action was perceived, at best, as no more than a cynical attempt by Islamist leaders to deflect military and political pressure and, at worst, as a deliberate deception to pursue conflict against Israel by other means.

Islamic approaches to peace

Yet the concept of ceasefire has been developed and embraced as central to the internal Hamas debate. It is seen as a way to trigger a political process, to test Israeli intentions, to demonstrate political leadership and stand on equal ground with internal political rivals.

The ceasefire as part of a political solution or interim arrangement in hostilities is central to Muslim thinking on warfare. Early Islam recognised its value as a tool for moving from armed conflict to resolution through peaceful means.

Palestinian Islamists are not the first to reflect on this mechanism as a way of managing long-term conflicts. In the late 1990s the Lebanese Hizbollah group entered into a successful formal ceasefire with Israel.

Hamas has always considered ceasefires. From its inception in the late 1980s its political leadership, in referring to the "interim solution" of the historic struggle with Israel, acknowledged the value of a ceasefire if it were part of a strategy to end Israel's 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories.

Tactical ceasefire

In the early 1990s, Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin offered Israel a fixed ceasefire of 20 to 50 years if both parties undertook not to attack each other, if Israel withdrew to the 1967 border, and if there were free elections for Palestinian representatives to peace negotiations.

Such a long-term ceasefire would allow Hamas to defer its "historic claims" for a generation and offer the prospect of Islamist recognition of Palestinian sovereignty alongside an Israeli state. Yassin explicitly accepted that elected Palestinian representatives would recognise the state of Israel and that such an outcome would end conflict.

The idea of a ceasefire has not been confined to the long term. Hamas and other Islamists have always adopted a pragmatic approach to the issue. In recent times it has been part of five such arrangements. On occasion the political leadership of Hamas has chosen to either de-escalate armed attacks against Israeli targets or implement a ceasefire without admitting it publicly.

Such tactical moves have had various motives. The Hamas leadership and other Islamists have agreed to ceasefires or de-escalation as a result of pressure from the Palestinian National Authority, which in turn has been pressured by external actors.

More usually such actions have been implemented to test whether Israel has any interest in reciprocating militarily or politically, and to demonstrate receptivity to popular Palestinian opinion and leadership.

The Hamas leadership has never been particularly comfortable with the tactical ceasefire, but it took such actions for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons. It believed that a unilateral ceasefire that was not intrinsically coupled to wider peacemaking progress would always be vulnerable to breakdown as a result of unrelenting Israeli military pressure.

The June ceasefire, which unlike earlier ones was led by Islamist groups working closely with representatives of Fatah Tanzim leader, Marwan Barghouti, produced a markedly favourable reaction from supporters of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Popular Palestinian support was widespread.

This positive reaction indicated that those who had argued that a Hamas ceasefire would fatally undermine its raison d'Ítre if it abandoned armed struggle - or jihad - were wrong. This was hardly surprising.

If many Islamist supporters adhered to Hamas and Islamic Jihad for their position on jihad against Israel, they also approved of the pragmatic political path the organisations were prepared to take and their recognised steadfastness of purpose.

Hamas, in particular, has always tacitly recognised that a political outcome was inevitable in the conflict with Israel. Elements of its leadership believed that an Islamist-promoted ceasefire would set the stage for negotiations on a basis, if not of equality, then at least as partners meriting respect. Dealing with the asymmetry of respect between adversaries in negotiation remains important to Palestinian Islamist groups.

Crash and burn

The causes of the breakdown of the June ceasefire remain in dispute. However, two important lessons have been drawn by the three Palestinian parties. Firstly, that after so many attempts, there is simply little point in continuing with similar unilateral Palestinian initiatives when they are barely reciprocated.

It is highly unlikely that Hamas or Islamic Jihad will be willing to initiate or join a similar experiment unless there is the prospect of meaningful Israeli reciprocity - particularly on the targeting of civilian areas and assassinations - and some external monitoring where the rules of the game are defined and observable.

Common ground is also needed around ceasefires and how they lead to participation in a political process and conflict resolution. Demilitarisation and decommissioning, the bug-bears of many a peace process, have been tentatively addressed by the Hamas leadership, which sees this as a key area for third-party intervention.

Threats

For the time being, the leaderships of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are closely watching the growing radicalisation within Islamism, and the emergence regionally of factions seeking to engineer a wider confrontation between Islamists and the US.

Hamas has sought to distance itself from these elements that it also regards as a threat to its interests. It sees any widening of the struggle beyond the objective of ending Israel's occupation to conflict with other parties, particularly the US, as potentially disastrous.

Hamas is clear on the key role of the US in the outcome of the conflict including establishing a Palestinian state. Any widening of objectives might introduce new external actors into the Palestinian arena. Their interests could well undermine Palestinian aspirations for statehood and introduce targets for military attack not solely related to the Israeli occupation.

Mutual mistrust

Aside from these wider considerations, Islamist assessments of Israeli intentions will also shape attitudes. Israeli views on ceasefires have been ambivalent. Some see them as an opportunity to break the mutual cycle of violence that characterises the conflict and provide an entry point to the political process.

To others, however, the completion of the fence and separation of the two peoples will provide the only satisfactory Israeli security. A ceasefire with Hamas or Islamic Jihad is viewed as irrelevant.

For some the prospect of any political compromise with such groups is inconceivable. Many Israelis have no faith in the potential transformation of a group like Hamas into a political organisation. Engagement is viewed as dangerous.

Indeed some fear that an internal Palestinian bargain starting from a ceasefire could strengthen cohesion and make the Palestinians more resistant to any settlement that falls short of the 1967 borders. This fear may underlie much of the hostile reaction to the ceasefire from those believing that only 'pragmatic' Palestinian leaders can be acceptable partners for Israel.

At an operational level, many Israeli officials are convinced that only heavy pressure on Hamas will make a ceasefire possible. They claim it was their attempted assassination of Hamas leader Dr Abdel Aziz Rantisi that prompted the organisation to declare the June ceasefire.

Hamas counters that the failed assassination attempt nearly wrecked it, and shortened the ceasefire by three months. It also asserts that the targeting of political leaders such as Dr Ismail Abu Shanab, who had promoted internal debate about the acceptability of a unilateral ceasefire, demonstrates Israeli attempts to deliberately undermine such developments.

Irrespective of the narratives, it is clear that the mistrust between Israel and the Islamists has been become much worse. There is little evidence that Israeli pressures on Hamas have compelled it to compromise. There is clear evidence of increased Palestinian grassroots radicalism that plays into the hands of Islamists.

Resolving the paradox

The key to resolving this paradox lies in recognising the dynamic nature of the parties. The days of domination by any one Palestinian party are past. The Palestine Liberation Organisation has neither the capacity nor the will to go to war with the Islamists and vice versa. Israel is unable to subdue such elements.

A ceasefire then becomes the only possible tool to build Palestinian consensus and to obtain wider legitimacy for a negotiated outcome. This demands that Palestinians first engage in some internal peace process of their own based on power sharing between Fatah and the other principal factions. This will also help to counteract trends to greater radicalism amongst other Islamists groups preoccupied with events in Iraq.

A divided Palestinian leadership will never be able to energise its people to trust the path ahead. Of course any ceasefire must transmute into political progress. This may be the only exit from the paradox; something that Hamas has tried to signal. We should consider carefully the consequences of ignoring the signal.

Alastair Crooke is former Special Security Advisor to EU High Representative Javier Solana. He played a key role in negotiations to end last year's Siege of the Church of the Nativity and helped facilitate the last two Palestinian ceasefires. Dr Milton-Edwards is Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict, Queens University, Belfast and author of Islamic Politics in Palestine (IB Tauris, 1996). The views expressed are personal.

- The World Today magazine syndication service,
published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London, UK.
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