GAZA, June 30, 2003 – The agreement by the three main Palestinian factions to suspend attacks on Israelis is based on bad faith and that may give it a fragile chance of success. The truce, which was announced Sunday, came about because of new international pressure after the war in Iraq. But its roots are deeper than that, in the complex politics of Palestinian violence, which fed the 33-month-old uprising against Israel and now might, haltingly, be bringing it to a close.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, has set a trap for Hamas and other militant groups. He is hoping to whipsaw any relative calm resulting from a cease-fire to extract concessions from Israel, like the opening of military checkpoints inside Gaza today. Then he wants to use the political support he hopes will follow to comply with the international peace plan known as the road map, collecting weapons and punishing whoever violates the truce, his advisers say. He has made no secret that his goal is to turn Hamas into just another political party, stopping it from conducting in effect its own foreign policy toward Israel.
Hamas leaders see the trap clearly. That is why they called for Mr. Abbas’s resignation earlier this month, after he urged an end to the armed uprising against Israel.
Hamas leaders are gambling that the cease-fire will fail and with it, Mr. Abbas and the American-led peace plan, say Palestinian officials who have negotiated with them. Hamas hopes Mr. Abbas’s own trap will close over him, the conflict will resume and a negotiated solution will seem more hopeless than ever.
As the cease-fire negotiations ripened last week, Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, acknowledged in an interview that bad faith was a key. “Everybody is bargaining with a very different set of expectations,” he said. “Maybe Hamas didn’t want to go into a situation against its interests, but they bet that Israel will not follow through.”
The question is why Hamas feels it must play along with the governing Palestinian Authority even for a short time. There are two sets of motivations cited by Palestinian officials and militant leaders. One arises from external considerations and the other, subtler one, from intensely factionalized Palestinian politics.
The American defeat of Saddam Hussein played a central role, as Hamas sponsors in Syria and Iran came under new American pressure and Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia’s, moved to calm the region. “After Sept. 11, the Palestinian resistance lost its international support,” said Samir al-Mashharawi, a top official here of Mr. Abbas’s mainstream Fatah faction. “After the Iraq war, the Palestinian resistance lost its Arab support.”
Other motives stem from Palestinian politics. In the view of Mr. Abbas’s allies and other Fatah officials, Fatah’s initial leadership of the intifada, or uprising, legitimized Hamas violence. After the uprising began in September 2000, those officials noted, it was months before Hamas began playing a high-profile role. Now, with Fatah pursuing a truce, Hamas had little choice but to play along.
“Having Fatah involved made the conflict a national conflict,” said Qadoura Fares, a Fatah legislator who negotiated the truce in Damascus, Syria, with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. “If Fatah is out, you have two extreme Muslim groups against Israel, against the peace process and against the Palestinian state. They understand these things.”
Mr. Abbas is acting now because, along with the Palestinian people, Fatah is in trouble. Once Hamas joined fully in the fighting, Fatah found itself in a new competition for respect in the street.
In the view of some of Mr. Abbas’s advisers, the great mistake made then by Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was to try to out-Hamas Hamas. That was an impossible proposition for Fatah, given its official acceptance of a two-state solution with Israel.
It is significant that the name chosen for Fatah’s violent wing was “Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades.” It reflects, in part, the fact that the intifada began after Ariel Sharon, with hundreds of policemen, visited the site of Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem in September 2000. The site is sacred to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
But the name also reflected what some Palestinian officials lament as an Islamicization of Fatah, a secular faction, as it tried to top Hamas.
The name was not enough. Although lacking Hamas’s fundamentalist visions of paradise, Al Aksa Martyrs added suicide to its arsenal. With Hamas gaining popularity, the group began in January 2002 to conduct suicide bombings and shootings against Israelis, after Israel killed a popular local leader of the group.
Unlike Hamas, which felt bound by religious injunctions, Al Aksa Martyrs felt free to use women as suicide bombers. Further, like Hamas, the group began striking frequently across the so-called Green Line, the boundary of the West Bank.
Those attacks helped persuade Israelis that Fatah, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was bent on erasing Israel, not just on attaining a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war.
The increasingly anarchic violence bolstered Fatah’s popularity.
But in March 2002, as Palestinian violence reached a peak in what seemed daily attacks, Palestinian security officials learned that Israel was preparing a broad offensive into the West Bank. Some pleaded with Mr. Arafat to act forcefully to stop the violence, a longtime associate of his said.
He refused, this adviser said, believing that Israel would not take the step. Mr. Arafat preferred not to confront the Islamic groups, preserving his own broad popularity and the option of unleashing violence as a bargaining lever, this adviser and Israeli intelligence officials said.
At the end of March, Israeli troops stormed into the West Bank in their biggest ground offensive since they invaded Lebanon in 1982.
Over the succeeding year, as Israel began putting whole Palestinian cities under curfew and taking back territory ceded to Palestinian control under the Oslo peace accord, a debate grew inside Fatah over whether the faction had lost control of its youth and its message. Mr. Fares and other 40-something Fatah leaders, who grew up under Israeli occupation rather than living decades in exile as Mr. Arafat did, argued that Fatah needed to reach out again to Israeli moderates. Some Fatah leaders continued to urge attacks but only against soldiers and settlers, to clarify that Fatah was seeking only to throw off occupation.
Mr. Abbas, however, was intent on rebuilding Palestinians’ shattered relations with the United States, and he realized that the Bush administration would not accept such distinctions. He sought a total halt, as did the Egyptian government. Mr. Abbas is trying to play to Fatah’s relative strength, as the faction that can make gains through negotiation.
In the short term, Mr. Abbas’s biggest problem may be Fatah. It was telling that on Sunday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad jointly announced the suspension of violence, while Fatah lagged behind. It lacks their ramrod discipline.
Fatah officials are worried that they may not be able to stop violence by some Aksa Martyrs cells, which Israeli officials say are loosely controlled. Al Aksa claimed responsibility today for the first rupture of the cease-fire, a sniper’s killing of a foreign worker in the West Bank.
[Israeli troops shot to death an armed Palestinian who fired a pistol at an army roadblock early Tuesday near the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem, military officials told Agence France-Presse. The man had no immediately known connection to any militant organization.]
Further, Mr. Arafat, like Hamas, may feel threatened by any rising support for Mr. Abbas. It was no coincidence that allies of Mr. Arafat raised last-minute objections to the truce on Sunday, delaying Fatah’s announcement and underscoring his pre-eminence.
In the longer term, if the truce holds, the test of that strategy will be whether peace talks undercut the Islamists and strengthen support for a two-state solution.
Hamas has always opposed that solution. But in an interview in April, Ismail Abu Shanab, a leader here of Hamas, said an American-brokered two-state solution could lead to peace — a statement that might, of course, have been mere posturing.
Asked if he would then give up his claim of a “right of return” to his family home outside Ashkelon, in what became Israel in 1948, Mr. Abu Shanab, said, “No.” Then he added, “But maybe this will fade down.”
“If we have a state,” he continued, as his 4-year-old daughter played nearby, “maybe the next generation will see things differently.”