PALESTINE: The Palestinian ceasefire: A window of opportunity
Mohammad Daraghmeh

April 13, 2005

It looks like the ceasefire, recently negotiated by Palestinian factions in Cairo was part of a more complex political process and not just a unilateral ceasefire that can be repudiated with ease.

The decision was accompanied by fundamental changes in the positions of the Islamic factions regarding participation in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Legislative Council elections and the Executive System of the National Authority.

This transformation would not have happened had the leaderships of these factions not felt encouraging changes coming from the other side: the release of hundreds of prisoners, deportees starting to return to their homes; the disappearance of gunships from Palestinian airspace, the return of some personal security as a result of a halt in assassinations, a halt in mass arbitrary arrest campaigns and the beginning of Israeli withdrawals from some Palestinian areas.

The election of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as President of the Palestinian National Authority earlier this year spearheaded the end of the ongoing bloody violence between Palestinians and Israelis of the past four years. Palestinians chose Abbas as president, fully aware of his agenda, based on reform and putting an end to violence.

Although the negotiations that followed the election of Abu Mazen, and which culminated in the Sharm El Sheikh understanding, did not result in a dramatic change in the relations between the two parties, they have opened new possibilities for ending one of the bloodiest and most complicated of all political crises.

The two parties have discovered, despite the wide gap between them, an area of common interest that fulfills a joint and urgent need for both of them: their interest in putting an end to violence.

Violence never brought the Palestinians any closer to their objective of an independent state. On the contrary, it took them even farther from it. Nor did violence enable the Israelis to break the Palestinian will and bring Palestinians to capitulation and acceptance of an Israeli-dictated solution.

According to Hani Al Masri, an analyst for the Palestinian newspaper Al Ayyam, `the Palestinian side found in the ceasefire a chance to emerge from the circle of violence, whose losses exceed, beyond comparison, what they achieve`.

Masri adds: `The Israeli side found in this ceasefire a chance to stop a war that has proved achieving victory by force is not possible.`

But this opportunity would soon be given a difficult test, when Israel began to procrastinate in fulfilling the agreements reached by the two parties. Consequently, some Palestinian factions started talking about the futility of the ceasefire and the need to revert to armed struggle.

Masri goes on to say: `The ceasefire will continue to be on the verge of a collapse unless Israel implements the agreements and understandings, such as the ones reached in Sharm El Sheikh, and others, and redeploys from West Bank villages, back to lines before the intifada erupted on September 28, 2000.`

He adds: `Armed attacks that are now faced with rejection and repudiation by most factions may soon be resumed because there is still an occupation, settlements and a separation wall. If this continues and Palestinians do not feel any changes in their lives, we may soon see yet another setback.`

Israeli reports indicate that settlement is continuing with an ever-increasing pace, especially in settlement blocks close to the `green line` and Jerusalem, which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wishes to annex to Israel.

The Sharon government announced a package of projects this year for new construction in these blocks, one of which included the issue of 3,500 building licenses in an area close to the settlement of Ma`aleh Adumim, where building interrupts the geographic contiguity between the south and the north of the West Bank.

`The two parties can enhance the available opportunity, each from his side, says prominent expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict Dr. Khalil Shikaki. `Israel can do that by announcing that the road map has entered the stage of implementation and that it will carry out its obligations under this plan over the coming six months, foremost of which are ending settlement activities, dismantling illegal outposts and bringing back the situation in the West Bank to its pre-September 2000 intifada situation.`

`The Palestinian side, in turn, could [enhance the available opportunity] through convincing Israel of the seriousness of the ceasefire and the steps taken in this respect,` Shikaki adds.

Yet Shikaki does not expect this political development to take place, in light of the Israeli prime minister`s persistence to stick to his plan, on the one hand, of refusing to halt settlement activities, and on the other hand, because of the fragile ceasefire remaining in the hands of the Palestinian factions.

Political and security sources close to Palestinian President Abbas indicate that he is fully aware of Sharon`s intentions regarding the settlements, yet he insists on implementing his program, especially regarding ending violence, because he knows that it is, first and foremost, in the best interest of the Palestinians.

Many observers see that an end to violence and serious steps by Israel to ease pressures on the daily lives of Palestinians, as agreed in Sharm El Sheikh, such as withdrawal from cities and villages, releasing a large number of prisoners, lifting checkpoints, and stopping the pursuit of fugitives, may create momentum for new political action in the Palestinian and Israeli societies that help them revert to understandings and agreements reached prior to the intifada.

Mohammad Daraghmeh is a Palestinian journalist and commentator. Acknowledgement to Common Ground News Service (CGNews)