Hamas 'Truce' Adds to Pressure on Arafat

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Hamas activists carry the body of Yacoub Aidkadik through Hebron

The 'cease-fire' declared by Hamas has not impressed Israel, but it was never meant to. The radical Islamist group on Friday announced a halt to suicide bombings and mortar attacks inside Israel-proper "in response to many wise people who want to avoid giving our occupiers a chance to split our unity." And the reason for their concern was underlined Friday in Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp, where five Palestinians died and at least 70 were injured when Hamas and Islamic Jihad gunmen attacked a Palestinian Authority police post. Clashes between the PA and its Palestinian opponents have grown increasingly violent over the past week, and the Hamas announcement appears to have been an attempt to remain on the right side of Palestinian public opinion by stepping back from a Palestinian civil war at a moment of deep political crisis in the West Bank and Gaza. The move may also be intended to inoculate itself against further action by the Palestinian Authority.

The Hamas 'cease-fire,' if it means anything in practice, may ease some of the political pressure on Arafat, but it won't get him out of his strategic logjam. Israel and the U.S. are keeping up the pressure to crack down on the organization, and Hamas is currently reported to be debating Arafat's demand that it hand over one of its key military leaders for arrest in line with an Israeli demand. The smaller Islamic Jihad organization made a similar statement later on Friday, after earlier vowing to continue suicide attacks inside Israel. The 'truce' call may presage a split within both organizations — Palestinian analysts suspect a significant portion of their suicide squadrons may be tempted to break with their leaders rather than accept Arafat's will. Even before it comes to that, however, a single Israeli assassination of a Hamas leader now would almost certainly reverse the 'cease-fire' decision.

The announcement puts Arafat in a bind, not only because it makes it more difficult for him to arrest Hamas members, but also because of the distinction made between Israel-proper and the West Bank and Gaza. The Islamist organization has left the door open to continue attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, a position endorsed by the grassroots militants of Arafat's own Fatah organization and one that would find few critics in Palestinian civil society where the settlements are viewed as an illegal and intolerable presence. But Israel and the U.S. are unlikely to tolerate a continuation of attacks on settlers, leaving Arafat facing the challenge of even more unpopular police work.

This week's clashes have prompted the Europeans and other diplomats to commend Arafat for taking concrete steps against groups conducting terrorist operations, although the U.S. and Israel are holding out for more. But Arafat's prime political obstacle in delivering that is the widespread perception in the West Bank and Gaza that he's acting on Israel's behalf against fellow Palestinians without achieving any gains for his own people. Hence the growing concern among diplomats and Israeli leaders of the traditional "peace camp" such as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to revive the prospect of political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This because they believe Arafat has no incentive and little credibility to sustain action against Palestinian radicals in the absence of a visible non-violent alternative for pursuing the universally shared Palestinian objective of ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

There'll certainly be no letup in diplomatic pressure on Arafat to sustain his offensive against the Islamists — the very fact of his current actions appears to prove the thesis that the Palestinian leader only acts under extreme pressure. But the perception that the PA is taking political risks to crack down on radicals is likely to raise pressure on the Israelis in the coming weeks for a resumption of political dialogue. Peres has reportedly been meeting with PA officials to discuss a plan under which Israel would withdraw from all over Gaza and allow Arafat to declare a state there and in the 40 percent of the West Bank he currently controls. That state would then negotiate with Israel over the remaining West Bank territories and Jerusalem. Arafat and most of his advisers are reportedly cool on accepting a state in three chunks of the West Bank crisscrossed and surrounded by Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Negotiations over Palestinian statehood are not a prospect in which Prime Minister Sharon has ever shown much interest, and would likely require some active interventionist diplomacy on the part of the U.S. — something its European and Arab allies and even Israeli peaceniks are pressing for.

EU representatives are currently in Washington holding talks to calibrate Middle East policy. U.S. mediator General Anthony Zinni was called home from the region last week, and his return date is not currently scheduled as Washington awaits further results from Arafat's efforts against the radicals. The U.S. has made clear it rejects Sharon's declaration of the PA leader as "irrelevant," and wants to avoid a scenario that would result in Arafat's political collapse. But it's unlikely that Arafat will ever do enough to satisfy Sharon; the question is whether and at what point he'll do enough to satisfy Washington.

Particularly when it's a relative certainty that precisely when any move towards reviving dialogue gathers momentum, Islamic Jihad or Hamas rebels will do their best to veto such dialogue with another well-timed suicide bombing.