Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Time Out for Terror?

Will Hamas use the cease-fire to become another Hizballah?

From Ehud Ya'ari, The Jerusalem Report

Whether it's called a hudna or by any other name, as of the end of January the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was worthy of applause. Putting a stop to the bloodletting of the last 52 months is no mean achievement, and Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) deserves credit for having the strength to part ways with the strategy of his predecessor, just as he had promised to do during his election campaign.

After a little teetering during his first days as ra'is of the PA, he demonstrated determination and perseverance, and all of a sudden it became clear - to those who had never realized it before - that it had indeed been none other than Yasser Arafat who stood in the way of ending the violence. Palestinian security forces, as if brought to life by the wave of a wand, deployed along the lines of engagement, and brought about a dramatic reduction in the volume of terrorism of all kinds.

The question now is what will be the nature of this truce, if it in fact stabilizes? What will be its political structure? Are we witnessing a hudna that reflects genuine recognition that the terror campaign boomeranged into failure? Or will it emerge as a mere opportunity for the armed factions to use the truce to make gains, something that Hamas and its ilk are stubbornly pressing for?

These are the three most important assets that these factions hope to acquire during the hudna:

* A time-out for an unspecified period, during which they can recover and regroup, after the blows they have sustained at the hands of the Israeli army and the Shin Bet. Their main aim will be to upgrade their rockets so that they can threaten Ashkelon.

* Participation in the PA's decision-making process, in a manner that could tie Abu Mazen's hands to a certain extent. This would happen first within a leadership framework in which Hamas and its cohorts would sit with Abu Mazen's people and oversee negotiations with Israel, and second, through the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, on July 17, which, after an anticipated change in the election law, should see these factions gaining substantial parliamentary representation. Hamas's landslide victory in Gaza's latest round of municipal elections demonstrates the scope of the threat.

* Immunity against Israeli attacks, and the legitimation of a "resistance" movement within the PA, by means of guarantees from Sharon to discontinue the attacks, and assurances from Abu Mazen that he'll refrain from disarming Hamas.

There is a risk that along with the instant short-term advantages expected to accrue as a result of the cease-fire, in the long term, a "cohabitation" arrangement will emerge between the PA and the unholy alliance of terrorist gangs. Under such an arrangement the cease-fire would entail - even implicitly - Israeli reconciliation to the existence of armed groups outside of the PA's legitimate security apparatus. These forces would have an agenda differing from that of Abu Mazen and the capability of conducting an independent military policy.

This would amount to a copy of the Lebanese model, where Hizballah exists alongside the legitimate government as an armed movement, equipped with thousands of long-range rockets. Hizballah, just as in the scenario envisaged for itself by Hamas, is represented in the parliament in Beirut and takes part in all the elections, but maintains an independent policy along the border with Israel, and initiates incidents without recourse to the approval of the central government.

Becoming a Palestinian version of Hizballah is exactly what Khaled Mashal, the head of the Hamas political bureau is aiming for. Like the Lebanese movement's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, he too would try to avoid confrontations with the authorities and to adapt his activities to the sensitivities of the government. But, whenever he deemed it necessary, when changing circumstances required it, he would open fire and launch attacks. Hamas, like Hizballah, wants to reserve the right to decide when this or that Israeli action calls for a violent response.

Israel at the moment has no choice but to show understanding for Abu Mazen's reluctance to enter a confrontation with the armed organizations, but this does not mean that Prime Minister Sharon can accept a system that preserves the terrorist power of Hamas and allows it a role in the decision-making process. In order to avert the dangers that such a system would represent, it is vital to enlist international support for the position that the hudna is only a stage in the removal of the terrorist threat, and not a means of strengthening it. For if this is not made clear, Hamas and its satellites will have it in their power to decide if and when the time has come for intifada No. 3.