Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 June 2001
Issue No.538
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

The struggle for Mitchell

There is no cease-fire in Gaza. Graham Usher speaks to Palestinian political leaders about the implications should there be one

The bodies of three Palestinian bedouin women torn apart by Israeli tank shelling in violation of the unilateral ceasefire declared by Israel
(photo: AFP)

This is how the cease-fire looks in Gaza. A scorched land of uprooted trees and blasted houses, a Palestinian house commandeered by Israeli soldiers in a machine gun nest and the palm wood and canvas topped tents of a Bedouin encampment that squats on the bank of a sewage farm.

It was here -- late Saturday night -- that Israeli tanks stationed in the Netzarim settlement a kilometre away fired shells into the camp and tore apart three Palestinian women and critically wounded two others.

The army "regretted" the incident but said it was firing at two Palestinian gunmen on the "open land" that now buffers the camp from the settlement. Palestinians insist there was no firing from any quarter prior to the tank shelling. One said the reason the women had decided to sleep outside their tents that night was "because they'd heard about a cease-fire."

This presumably is not how things look to CIA chief George Tenet, who has spent much of the last week meeting Israelis and Palestinians to "consolidate" the "unilateral cease-fire" called by Ariel Sharon on 22 May and the "unconditional cease- fire" declared by Yasser Arafat on 2 June.

He is having a tough time, largely because he appears to have adopted wholesale Israel's version of what constitutes an "unconditional cease-fire" as recommended by the Mitchell report about the causes of the present violence in the occupied territories.

According to Israeli press reports, Tenet is demanding the Palestinian Authority end "incitement" in its media, confiscate mortars and other illegal arms and arrest between 20-30 "fugitives" from the Islamic Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.

He is also reportedly in agreement with Israel that these actions should precede any lifting of Israel's blockade on the occupied territories or return of its forces to positions held on 28 September 2000, the day Sharon "demonstrated Jewish sovereignty" over the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem's Old City.

It was over these conditions -- and this sequencing -- that a "tense and ill- tempered" meeting he attended between PA and Israeli security officials on Monday night broke up without results. It remains unclear if Tenet can put such meetings together again.

Even if he does, it is wholly unclear if the PA can deliver on Tenet's demands, particularly the arrests of the Islamists. "This has nothing to do with implementing the Mitchell report," says Hamas political leader in Gaza, Ismail Abu Shanab. "It is simply a ruse by Sharon to export the conflict from the Israeli- Palestinian front to the internal Palestinian front".

So can Arafat once more embark on a road charted for him by the CIA, as he did with the Wye agreement in 1998?

"He can but he will never do it," insists veteran Fatah leader Hani Al-Hassan. The reason is the radical new political reality produced by the eight-month Palestinian uprising. "Our leadership has restored its credibility in the Intifada precisely because Hamas and Fatah have fought alongside each other. This is now our strength among the people."

"However", he adds, "should we reach a cease-fire agreement based on the Mitchell report anyone who violates that agreement will be arrested. But there will be no retroactive arrests unless Israel decides to arrest those officers responsible for the killing of 500 of our people".

For Hamas, any talk of arrests, "retroactive" or otherwise, is tantamount to treason, given "the deep and dramatic national unity the Intifada has achieved," says Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar. Another Hamas leader who requested anonymity warns of the consequences should Arafat choose again to "become an American agent" rather than a Palestinian leader: "We would concentrate our attacks on Israel," he says.

But, he adds significantly, should Arafat resist the demands for arrests and Israel withdraw to its 28 September positions, "I think Hamas could calm things on the ground, to enter a period of retreat rather than escalation. But this depends on Israel -- for the scale of our resistance is determined by the scale of Israel's attacks."

But Sharon has no incentive to scale down the attacks, especially in the name of a process that leads to demands for a freeze on settlements and a return to negotiations for a final status agreement. Rather, he has given his army a free hand to pursue a policy of "active restraint."

Aside from slaughtering women in their beds, this appears to include mock air raids and tank incursions into PA areas in Gaza and what is now almost certainly an undeclared policy of assassination in the West Bank. The latest instance of this happened on Monday when Imad Abu Diab, an Islamic Jihad activist, was nearly killed by an explosion detonated when he opened the door of his car in Tulkarm.

On such a ground Arafat can no more impose a cease-fire on his people than roll back the tide with a stick. "We are not an army under orders," says Al-Hassan. "We are a people in revolt." And Arafat can only temper that revolt in exchange for tangible political gains.

For now this hope rests on the slender raft of the Palestinian leader's desperate attempts to insert the European Union and the United Nations into the Mitchell process. The most overt case of this is through the covert distribution of a handful of EU security personnel at such flashpoints as Rafah in Gaza and Beit Jala in the West Bank.

Nor -- as Israel alleges -- is this simply a backdoor means to create an international force or witnesses to determine who is observing the cease-fire and who is not. As importantly, it is to rally international opinion behind the Palestinian interpretation of Mitchell as opposed to the Israeli interpretation.

The Palestinians hope that if the political process leads to a settlement freeze and negotiation, Sharon's national unity coalition will be fractured.

Conversely, the process may evolve into an Israeli security agenda that will hasten the demise of Arafat's regime, if not from Israeli military assaults from without, then through Palestinian internal dissent from within.

It is already pretty clear where the US stands vis-à-vis these interpretations. It is less clear where the EU and the UN stand. And it is wholly unknown what, if anything, they will do.

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