Tactical ceasefire is worthless
By Neill Lochery
The National Post
June 30, 2003
There is a great deal of concern that the ceasefire, declared today by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, will seize the political and moral high ground from Israel. Let's get this straight from the start -- this temporary ceasefire (or hudna) for a period of three months is not worth the paper it is written on.
The question is: Why now? And how will this hudna impact upon the implementation of the U.S.-sponsored road map peace proposals?
Clearly the rationale behind the move from groups that routinely send others on suicide missions inside Israel is to save their own skins. Last month, the Israeli government gave the order -- following a series of suicide attacks in Jerusalem -- for its armed forces to begin killing any member of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade (part of Fatah, and directly linked to Yasser Arafat). This was to be carried out in either targeted assassinations or "shootouts" if Israeli forces happened to encounter members during routine patrols.
The order marked a major escalation in Israel's war with these groups. Prior to this decision, Israel had an unwritten agreement not to target any of their political or military leadership. Instead, Israel went after only those individual members known to have been involved in specific attacks on Israelis.
This move by the Israelis divided the Bush administration and is responsible for the confused signals we have seen from the U.S. administration in recent weeks over the killing of militants. The State Department, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, was quoted as saying that the killings were not helpful to the peace process. Other State Department officials leaked statements that tried to go further and actually condemn the killings. It was this that led to a severe backlash from members of Congress who spotted a degree of hypocrisy in such statements about Israeli actions and the waging of the American war on terror. A war in which U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly stated that America would bring terrorists to justice wherever they hid in the world.
Others within the Bush administration were privately pleased that Israel appeared -- at last -- to be going on the offensive since it was hoped that Israel could dismantle the infrastructure of these groups in a relatively short period of time, after which the Israelis and the current mainstream Palestinian leadership would be free to return to implementing the road map. Central to this group's thinking is the belief that the current Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, is simply not politically or militarily strong enough to take on the job of destroying these groups.
What has surprised Washington -- and to a lesser degree the Israeli government -- has been the speed with which these Israeli attacks appear to have led to a capitulation by the radicals. There are reports of Hamas leaders sending their families overseas to Europe, even Canada, to get them out of harm's way. Consequently this ceasefire, from the point of view of the militants, is all about buying time to hide and regroup. And this is why the Israeli government is so reluctant to agree to abide by its terms. In this respect, the long list of preconditions that the militant groups attached to the ceasefire is mere window dressing aimed at saving face among their Palestinian constituency by presenting the hudna as a political manoeuvre.
Amidst all the fear and tactical submissions a Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti, is sitting in his Israeli prison cell watching his political stock rise by the day. While Abu Mazen struggles to bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad on board, Barghouti -- the organizer of ceasefire announced yesterday -- has managed to be seen as having reined in Hamas and others from his prison cell. Post readers may remember that last year I suggested that Barghouti was Israel's choice as Palestinian leader -- this despite his show trial in Israel on terrorist charges. Do not be surprised if he is released in the coming weeks as part of the ceasefire deal in order to make a triumphant return to the West Bank. If Abu Mazen continues to disappoint then it will likely be Barghouti who assumes office and is left to implement the road map.
The hudna has put Israel in a difficult position in the coming days. Those in the Bush administration who supported all-out war against groups such as Hamas -- and President Bush would appear to be listening to this group -- must make sure that Israel is not pressured into allowing these groups off the hook just at the time they have them on the run.
Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.
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