Call This a Ceasefire?

August 12, 2003

Two suicide bombings of Israelis by Palestinian militants have put the short-lived Middle East truce in danger.

The ceasefire reluctantly accepted by three of the main Palestinian militant groups at the end of June was intended to end a cycle of bloody attacks and counter-attacks, between the militants and the Israeli security forces, that had threatened to destroy the Middle East peace process. Though never perfect, the truce did seem in its first weeks to have broken that cycle. Now it is not so clear. On Tuesday August 12th, two suicide bombers blew themselves up—one in a grocery store in Rosh Ha'ayin near Tel Aviv and another, a short time later, near the Jewish settlement of Ariel on the West Bank. Early reports said two Israelis and the bombers were killed and at least 13 others injured.

The military wing of Hamas, one of the groups supposedly on ceasefire, said on its website that it had carried out the attack at Ariel and named the 21-year-old bomber. The website said the attack was to avenge the deaths of two Hamas members in a gun battle in the West Bank city of Nablus on Friday, in which two other Palestinians and an Israeli soldier also died. Al-Aqsa Brigades—a militant group linked to the Fatah movement of the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, and prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas—admitted perpetrating the Rosh Ha'ayin attack and said it was also in revenge for the deaths of the Hamas men in Nablus. Mr Abbas condemned the attacks but also denounced recent raids by Israeli forces on Palestinian areas, which he said had provoked the bombings.

Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, said after Tuesday's bombings that there could be no progress on the internationally backed "road map" to peace until the Palestinian Authority (PA) dismantled the militant groups. Mr Sharon also suspended the release of 76 Palestinian prisoners who were to have been given their freedom on Tuesday as part of an Israeli gesture to strengthen the peace process. Last week, Israel released 330 of the 6,000 or so Palestinian prisoners it holds, but Palestinian leaders have dismissed the move as deeply inadequate: they want several thousand to be released, including members of militant groups.

So are the ceasefire and perhaps even the peace process over? No—not yet, at least. Palestinian militant leaders said they had not abandoned the truce, though they insisted on "the right to respond to violations by Israel with similar violations," as Abdallah al-Shami, a leader of Islamic Jihad, put it. One of the main leaders of Hamas's political wing, Aziz Rantisi, said on BBC Radio that Israel had repeatedly broken the truce with raids on suspected militants in Palestinian areas; his group, he said, would not initiate attacks but would "react to Israeli terror actions".

Some cells of al-Aqsa Brigades have refused to take part in the ceasefire and have continued to launch sporadic attacks on Israeli forces and Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. But since its declaration on June 29th, the truce has led to a dramatic fall in the level of violence. Whether Tuesday's attacks prove to be a brief setback, or the start of a new cycle of attacks and counter-attacks that blows apart the truce, will to a great extent depend on how Israel now responds. After past suicide attacks it has replied by trying (sometimes with success) to assassinate Palestinian militant leaders: it tried to blow up Mr Rantisi in his car shortly before the ceasefire began. But Mr Sharon is likely to come under international pressure, especially from President George Bush, to show restraint.

After pressure from the Bush administration, Israel has so far reacted with some degree of moderation to an attack last weekend, in which Hizbullah, a Shia militant group based in southern Lebanon, shelled a disputed border area controlled by Israel, killing a 16-year-old Israeli boy. In retaliation, Israeli planes bombed an anti-aircraft battery in southern Lebanon and flew over the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, said this had been a "warning signal" but hinted that no further military response was planned. The State Department in Washington said it had been in contact with all parties to urge "maximum restraint to avoid further escalation".

The ceasefire could yet be saved and progress on the road map could resume. But there are some serious obstacles. Israel refuses to stop raiding the bases of suspected Palestinian bomb-makers until it is convinced that the PA's security forces are disarming them. Mr Abbas will not try to disarm the militants because he fears any such attempt would trigger a civil war among Palestinians. Those militants observing the ceasefire say it may not be renewed when it runs out in late September unless many of their comrades are released from Israeli custody. But Israel is refusing to let them out because it fears this would help the militants to regroup and launch further attacks. Complicating things further, Mr Sharon is facing police questions in two investigations into allegations of bribery affecting his two sons. The Israeli prime minister may have to resign if either he or one of his sons is charged.

Halfway through the three-month truce, neither side seems to be trying to make the most of it to push forward the peace process. It has taken pressure from the world's main powers to get the two sides' political leaders to shake hands on the road map and to arm-twist the militants to set aside their guns and bombs. To avoid either a breakdown in the ceasefire or a continued impasse, the pressure, especially from Mr Bush, has to be stepped up.

More Information on the "Peace Process"
More Information on Israel, Palestine and the Occupied Territories

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