A truce or a fig leaf?

The headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, destroyed following Israel’s April 2002 “Operation Defensive Shield”. The Muqata’, as the compound is known, is the Ramallah district headquarters of several Palestinian Authority offices and security forces. (Ronald de Hommel)

The world has suddenly noticed the renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians, but not because Israel stepped-up extrajudicial executions and other attacks on Palestinians in recent weeks. Only when several Palestinian resistance groups responded by firing crude mortars and rockets against Israeli targets inside the occupied territories and within Israel, and one of the armed groups claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack in Netanya which killed five people, did the matter rise to the top of the international agenda. Israel escalated the violence again, attacking refugee camps and other civilian areas and carrying out more executions, using both ground-based death squads and helicopters firing missiles. At least eight Palestinians were killed, including at least one child, and many people were injured.

All of this is happening under what is meant to be a truce. Surprisingly there is little or no talk that the truce must be over with fighting erupting at this scale. Rather, we are in a very strange situation in which a truce and its opposite — open fighting — are said to exist at exactly the same time. The explanation of this bizarre case is simple: Right from the start the truce was intended as a cover to achieve totally unrelated results. Ending the violence was not one of its aims.

The death of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was hailed by peace process industry operators as the dawn of a new era of reconciliation between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Political manipulators from many capitals rushed to the region to claim their share from the window of opportunism that had just opened. Consensus quickly built that the “long-awaited partner” for which the Israelis were desperately waiting was no less than Mahmoud Abbas. Intensive official propaganda helped by journalistic laziness has painted Abbas as a peace-loving moderate, a shrewd statesman, a pacifist, a pragmatist, and a worthy interlocutor for the well-travelled envoys of the EU, Scandinavia, Canada and the United States.

While his legitimacy as the leader of all Palestinians, rather than just the increasingly discredited, disunited and unpopular Fateh faction, needed to be buttressed by managed elections which ratified his pre-ordained victory, his credentials as the awaited peace messiah needed to be similarly consolidated by a truce. Every power of persuasion and even “mild” coercion, was mobilized, to bring the various Palestinian factions to agree to stop their “aggression” against the poor Israelis, and proclaim a truce. To great rejoicing, a truce was proclaimed. With a fig leaf firmly in place, many felt protected from the indecent exposure of their shameful failure to forcefully confront Israel’s continued aggression.

The truce was the price Abbas owed his supporters in Washington, Europe, the Arab world, and probably in Israel. His one and only mandate from his backers is to stop the Intifada. Whether Abbas truly believes that Palestinians will achieve anything from the unconditional surrender he has been advocating is a debatable matter. What is clear though is that the truce was the only lifeline left for the Palestinian Authority and Fateh. Paying this heavy price, Abbas may secure nothing for his people or their cause, but he might prolong his term in office by performing in the manner he was chosen to perform. This certainly helps to explain why it is that he becomes furious and shows his teeth only when Palestinians, totally undefended by the thousands of armed men under the PA’s command, respond to Israeli attacks, and he barely utters a word when the Israelis humiliate and kill his people and further reduce their rights. He rushes to Gaza to persuade Palestinians not to defend themselves and their homes against Israel, but never can he be seen at checkpoints and at villages devastated by the wall to demonstrate and stand in solidarity with those who are being persecuted daily by Israel.

For the Palestinian Authority, the truce is simply a measure to buy time, but behind it there is no strategy except begging for the mercy and generosity of foreign powers and sponsors who time and again have abandoned the Palestinian people to Israel’s brutal might and never on a single occasion effectively confronted Israel’s open defiance of international law.

As far as Israel is concerned, it did not really care about the truce but did not mind it either. Israel never wanted to be a party to any discussion leading to a truce that would tie its hands. It considered the matter a purely internal Palestinian affair, because the media had already saturated the airwaves with the notion that any violence was solely the responsibility of the Palestinians. A truce, therefore, was only required from them. The Israelis also wanted the truce to delegitimize any Palestinian opposition, not only to the deepening occupation, but also to any Israeli plans for further expansion and colonisation. The truce, which Israel never recognized and never promised to observe — a promise which it strictly kept — was needed to give it the time to complete its plans of annexation, the creation of new facts on the ground, and the consolidation of its war gains. In simple terms, the truce gave Israel freedom of action at no cost, and certainly at no risk.

On that basis, and with full impunity, Israel continued, under the truce, to chase and arrest Palestinians and kill them if they tried to escape arrest, it continued to build settlements on stolen land, to demolish Palestinian houses in Jerusalem to pave the ground for Jewish-themed recreation parks, and to build the apartheid wall. None of these Israeli actions were ever treated as violations by supporters of the truce. Last week, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer sharply rebuked the Palestinians and warned them that they would never get their independent state until they “end violence and terrorism.” In contrast, he said he “expressed our concerns to the Israelis about the wall, about the route of the wall and the humanitarian consequences, as well as the settlement activities.” The Israelis know that such weak and measly statements from EU officials are utterly devoid of force and are only designed to cover up EU inaction and collusion in front of Arabs and others who still believe that the EU has a Middle East policy independent of the United States, and so, understandably the Israelis simply ignore them.

The truce was bound to collapse sooner or later, although all efforts will now be made to save it, first because it was meant to hide the problem rather than resolve it, and second because it was superimposed on top of a minefield of atrocities, aggression and injustice. None of those powers who struggled for the truce did one meaningful thing to make it into what it should be, the prerequisite for political discussions to end the Israeli occupation in its entirety, not just the bits Israel has grown tired of. The inevitable outcome is as clear now as it was before the truce was established. With Israel dictating the agenda and everyone else following there will be no hope of peace. Under these circumstances, the one-sided truce only bottled up pressure that inevitably burst into greater violence.

The alternative to the truce is not submission to endless bloody violence. It should be a real truce to replace the fake one. It should be a total ban on violence along with a total ban on unilateral Israeli actions. If all the Quartet envoys were serious about peace they would be the ones who would insist on that without the Palestinians needing to ask them. All this should be the first step towards serious negotiations, which would start with ending all the empty talk about the roadmap or Premier Ariel Sharon’s “courageous” Gaza initiative. This road to nowhere should be abandoned.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former Permanent Representative of Jordan at the United Nations and was a member of the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation at the Washington peace talks with Israel in the early 1990s.