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Cairo talks show Hamas strength

Yasser Arafat attends Friday prayers at a mosque adjacent to his headquarters in Ramallah on Dec. 5. (BP Images)

Yasser Arafat attends Friday prayers at a mosque adjacent to his headquarters in Ramallah on Dec. 5. (BP Images)

JERUSALEM, Dec. 8 (JTA) — In the Middle East, hope can be a fleeting thing. Over the weekend, Israeli pundits predicted that talks among Palestinian terrorist groups and the Palestinian Authority were about to produce a new “hudna,” or temporary cease-fire with Israel — one that even would require some Israeli concessions in its war on terrorism. But then Hamas balked. The leading Palestinian terrorist group refused to agree even to a limited cease-fire without a formal Israeli agreement to accompany it. So Palestinian Authority Prime Minster Ahmed Qurei left Cairo having suffered another serious blow to his prestige. Some Hamas leaders tried to downplay the collapse of the Cairo talks. Hamas negotiator Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook announced Monday that his group was ready for another round of talks, preferably in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, away from the pressure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his aides. Qurei, for his part, is concerned that the collapse of the talks may set off another round of violence that will give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a pretext to speed up construction of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, which Palestinians oppose. Hamas demonstrated in Cairo that the longtime terrorist group is a tough nut to crack. It flexed its muscles to show that it wouldn’t follow the rules dictated by Qurei and P.A. President Yasser Arafat. Qurei wanted Palestinian groups to announce a cessation of hostilities against all Israelis but would have settled for an agreement to limit attacks to Israeli soldiers and settlers. With an agreement in hand, Qurei planned to meet Sharon and demand drastic Israeli concessions in response: No more targeted killings of terrorist leaders, a halt to construction of the security fence and a freeze on West Bank settlements. Sharon had refused to offer a formal commitment that Israel would cease its anti-terrorist operations but had made clear that if there were quiet in the Palestinian territories, Israel would not disrupt it. But Hamas, along with other terrorist groups like Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, refused to commit to any sort of cease-fire as long as Israel hadn’t formally agreed to rein in its forces. Mubarak expressed his disappointment on Monday. “All we asked was that they give Qurei the power to negotiate with Sharon,” the Egyptian leader said. Hamas, however, may have had another agenda: The group announced that the Cairo talks had failed because “Arafat and Qurei had refused to include the Palestinian factions in preparations for the talks with Israel.” That could indicate that Hamas’ position was more than just a matter of tactics. It may have signaled a turning point in its relations with the Palestinian Authority. Hamas indicated to Arafat that it can’t be bullied, and the group regards itself as a political power strong enough to set conditions for P.A. leaders. So what happened to Hamas? The local leadership, which has been hounded by Israel’s anti-terrorism strikes, is aware of the need to take time out from the intifada. Last week’s operations by the Israel Defense Forces against Hamas targets in Ramallah were a case in point. Indeed, previous Israeli operations, which forced Hamas leaders underground, had led the organization to declare a cease-fire this summer. The halt of hostilities was short-lived — it ended with a devastating suicide bombing in Jerusalem — but gave the terrorists time to regroup. However, the Hamas leadership in Jordan and Syria, outside the Israeli-controlled territories, dictated a harder line. Sources in the IDF intelligence division said Palestinian terrorist groups believe they are in a “better strategic position” right now because of U.S. difficulties in Iraq and the growing internal debate in Israel following the presentation of various unofficial peace proposals. Even after more than three years of suffering, Hamas leaders believe their people can endure more. According to Israeli military sources, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even Fatah continue to plan terrorist attacks. No major attacks have succeeded in recent weeks, but security forces claim there are dozens of terror warnings daily. Israeli security sources reported Monday that a terrorist attack was prevented in an unnamed Israeli town thanks to the security fence near Kalkilya, a West Bank city adjacent to the Israeli city of Kfar Sava. Abdel Aziz Rantissi, a Hamas leader in Gaza, suggested Monday that too much should not be read into the recent lull in attacks. “Our operations come in waves,” he said, “so it makes sense that there are gaps between them. This is such a period.” Israeli officials feel the breakdown of the cease-fire talks is a serious Palestinian crisis, not merely a matter of tactics. However, Abu Marzook’s announcement that talks would resume indicates that the Hamas leadership also understands that the next terrorist attack could set off a new round of bloodshed, despair and tears — and that the group isn’t ready for that just yet.

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