JERUSALEM (Mar. 17)
Instead of a formal cease-fire, Palestinian terrorist groups have agreed to extend the state of “calm” in the conflict with Israel. But though Thursday’s resolution in Cairo may have paved the way for a smoother Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this summer, many were left wondering whether it would prove to be the calm before the storm.
After two days of haggling with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over the truce he declared with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last month, leaders of 13 armed factions said they had “agreed to maintain the recent calm in exchange for Israel’s commitment to stop all forms of attack and release (security) prisoners.”
It was a minor triumph for host Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who recently has reassumed the role of main Middle East power broker, but a far cry from the satisfying crackdown on terrorism required by the U.S.-led peace “road map.”
“The terrorist groups cannot continue existing as armed groups — and certainly not as terrorist groups,” Sharon’s office quoted him as telling Mubarak by telephone, although he added that the Cairo resolution was a “good first step.”
Others in Jerusalem were less sanguine, noting that Palestinian extremists bent on destroying the Jewish state had been allowed to keep their weapons while making inroads as political forces.
Hamas declared last weekend that it would take part in Palestinian parliamentary elections this July, stirring concern on both sides of the Green Line of a possible Islamist takeover of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“We cannot make our peace with the fact that Abu Mazen is allowing Hamas to become a movement like Hezbollah, with both a military wing and a political wing with a presence in Parliament,” said the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yuval Steinitz, referring to Abbas’s nom du guerre.
But many analysts believe that Hamas, which is as renowned among Palestinians for its charity networks as for its suicide bombings, will suspend terrorism indefinitely if it is convinced it is for the people’s good.
Much of that depends on what unfolds after Israel leaves Gaza. Under the current “disengagement plan” endorsed by President Bush, Israel intends to hold on to much of the West Bank. That, analysts say, could spur a Palestinian return to violence.
For now, Israeli actions appear to be in line with the demands of the Cairo resolution. Military countermeasures have been scaled back dramatically since the Sharon-Abbas peace summit, and the government approved the release of 900 of some 8,000 Palestinian prisoners.