“Will it will work this time? Maybe, just maybe”. You can hear it from Israelis and from Palestinians, from committed peace activists to shop- keepers who had voted for Sharon: a mixture of hope and scepticism, still prevalent on the third day of the fragile “hudna” – Arabic for “cease-fire “, a concept drawn from an ancient Islamic tradition which has in the past year entered into day to day Hebrew.
Israelis and Palestinians, we have all seen it before – promising ceasefires broken into terrible scenes of bloodshed, partial withdrawals which ended with the tanks coming back even more brutally, prisoners released and arrested again. Can it possibly end differently, this time around?
The reasons for scepticism are many and obvious. The Israeli military commanders make no secret of not having wanted this cease-fire – which is potentially more dangerous than the Palestinian rogue groups who so far defy the cease-fire. (Ironically, they are not drawn from Islamic militants, but from outlying groups of the Fatah organization, the central structure of which was all too successfully targeted by the IDF.)
There is a fundamental difference of opinion on what the whole thing is about. Sharon, his ministers and his generals are stridently demanding the disarming and dismantling of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. In this demand, which would inevitably entail a full-scale Palestinian civil war, Sharon seem to be backed by the Bush Administration. For their part, the Palestinians have undertaken to enforce the cease-fire and prevent attacks on Israelis, including attacks on soldiers and settlers – which was among Palestinians a long-debated point. But they also made abundantly clear that they have no intention whatsoever of presenting Sharon with the spectacle of bloody battles among Palestinians in the streets of Gaza.
Assuming that this major hurdle will be somehow overcome, a far more fundamental discrepancy remains unresolved. When Sharon speaks of “a Palestinian State”, he means a truncated series of enclaves embracing no more than half of the the West Bank, and surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory studded with military camps and settlements. Hardly a “viable state” as envisaged in the famous Roadmap. In furtherance of that aim, Sharon is continuing full ahead with settlement construction, fully authorized by the government and paid for from its budget – while the much-trumpeted “dismantling of unauthorized settlement outposts” has dwindled into unconvincing farce. Moreover, Sharon is busily marking out his version of the eventual border in the form of the so-called Separation Fence (“Apartheid Wall” as the Israeli and Palestinian protesters call it). Day by day, as this monster advances across fields and olive orchards, Palestinian villagers continue to lose their land and livelihood – notwithstanding the public expression of displeasure by National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice.
Why still feel even a bit of hope? Not just because people are alive who might be dead otherwise, nor just because some manifestations of the occupation such as roadblocks in the Gaza Strip have been moved away. What is far more significant is the general feeling on both sides that the military option has been tried to the full and beyond. No Israeli general could point to significant results to be expected from continuing to hold down the Palestinian population. Nor can Palestinian militants credibly promise any good result of further suicide bombings. The two societies are exhausted; the two economies ravaged. Palestinian poverty goes much deeper but also more and more Israelis are unable to make ends meet.
As many commentators remark, the “War of a Thousand Days” is ending – if it is indeed ending – in a stalemate, with no clear victor. Considering the enormous discrepancy in economic and military power such a result is an enormous tribute to Palestinian endurance and steadfastness.
In a way, the very scepticism on both sides could turn out to be a blessing. One of the inbuilt failures of “Oslo” was that a preliminary agreement which left the most important issues open, was ceremoniously presented as peace had already been reached. Everything thereafter could hardly be anything but a let-down. This time, with expectations extremely low among Israelis and Palestinians alike – any surprises would have to be for the good.