Global Policy Forum

Deciphering the Hodna


By Azmi Bishara

July 11, 2003

The Palestinian factions have declared a unilateral cease-fire. But, warns Azmi Bishara, unless the resistance is involved in policymaking, things will get worse.

Talk of a hodna, or truce, has opened the door for various forms of orientalist interpretation masquerading as well-informed opinion throughout the Israeli media. Talk shows are parading experts to discuss the place of hodna in Islamic history and review the battles fought by the Prophet Mohamed. Can anything be more painful than to hear interlocutors peppering their speech with an Arabic word, as if by doing so they automatically acquired an esoteric key to knowledge which the Hebrew or English languages lack? Hodna has risen like a fearsome apparition from the past, a manifestation of a mythical world requiring guided tours to explain it, and interpreters dressed in safari-wear to decipher its codes. What harm can be done by employing the odd local -- a sympathetic minder, a friendly detective -- to help the American protagonist along his way? Better yet, our hero -- in this case, a Western journalist or expert -- may even succeed in freeing the local society from their despotic leaders, like a Hollywood action man who rescues a fair maiden from her fierce oriental captor. The analogies may seem far-fetched, but they are tempting, for reality of late has turned into a farcical combination of racism, male chauvinism, and imperialist perspective.

The trip down the hidden linguistic alleys of the hodna has been particularly arduous, and only got worse when one particular commentator introduced fetna to the argument -- a term loosely translatable as sedition. Without batting an eyelid, he casually dropped into the conversation that there will be no "fetna". But then, an Arabic word is always useful to enhance the local colour.

Thus hodna has now joined Intifada, which has survived in the Hebrew and English literature while all attempts at its translation simply faded away. In the process, the Intifada was elevated into a special case, differentiated from other uprisings and revolts. It became a unique phenomenon, confined to the Palestinians, and resistant to full comprehension. As a topic, it therefore required a measure of elaboration: it needed to be explained and debated at length. The same thing is now happening with hodna. It is being morphed into an esoteric concept, which historians and linguists are invited to explain. Suddenly, we are no longer talking of a cease- fire -- a concept readily available in English, and which is widely used in reference to the armistice lines of 1949 -- but of something much stranger, much harder to pin down: a hodna.

In actual fact, what the Palestinian groups have recently offered is a unilateral cease-fire. It is as simple as that. When the armistice lines were drawn up in 1949, the action was rendered in English by its appropriate name, and no one saw any reason to introduce the Arabic word, hodna, into other languages.

Over the past few years, words associated with political events in the Arab region have routinely been searched for religious references and hidden meanings that may date back a thousand years or more in time, as if the Arabs could not possibly use a word to describe a certain situation without summoning up a whole panoply of religious connotations. Yet one can only guess at the horror a contemporary Western journalist would feel if one were to explain current European or American political terms through reference to the meanings they carried in the Old Testament, or in the clerical writings of the Middle Ages. Whatever the motives of the various Palestinian factions in declaring a unilateral cease- fire, the decision was a strategically appropriate one under the current local, regional, and international circumstances. Regardless of the political achievement such a decision entails, or the dynamic which it has created by embarrassing the Israeli government, there is something to be said for combatants choosing to stop and catch their breath in the current circumstances. This goes for Palestinian society, as well as for the factions themselves.

Various Israeli officials have declared the cease-fire to be unacceptable. They argue that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is required by the terms of the roadmap, which it has approved in full and without reservation, to fight "terrorism", disarm the militants, and dismantle their infrastructure. On their reading, the PA is supposed to destroy the Palestinian factions, not engage them in dialogue. Moreover, they fear that the cease- fire may simply serve to provide the factions with a much-needed period of respite, after which they may simply resume fighting even more ferociously than before, unless they are disarmed.

The Israelis therefore insist that the redeployment they initiated in northern Gaza and Bethlehem just as the cease-fire was declared is not a reward for the cease-fire, but is simply intended to allow the Palestinian security services to collect in as many weapons as possible. These services have one month from the date of the redeployment to carry out this task, after which they are expected to begin confronting the factions directly. Israel, for its part, may take advantage of the cease-fire to hunt down Palestinian militants in areas not subject to the new Israeli-Palestinian security agreement. Its explicit aim in doing so is to weaken the factions and undermine their standing among the Palestinian public. If all this goes according to plan, the Palestinian security service, which is currently being rehabilitated, may well regain the initiative.

The United States accepted this interpretation of Israel's intentions when it welcomed the cease-fire. The Americans were pleased to push Yasser Arafat back into the shadows, despite all he has done to rescue the roadmap from the crisis triggered by the assassination attempt on Al- Rantisi, and despite his role in creating Abu Mazen's government and obtaining the cease-fire. During recent talks in Jerusalem, Condoleezza Rice said that the United States intends to invest about $1 billion in the occupied territories. Yet at the same time, Washington continues to wage a worldwide campaign against Islamic resistance movements, and tries to dry up their sources of funding.

Israel and the United States are hoping to rally the support of large sections of Palestinian society, those that have suffered economically over the past two years, while simultaneously sowing the seeds for a Palestinian civil war, or at least a confrontation between Palestinian security organs and militant groups. Israel and the United States are not doing so just to enjoy the sight of Palestinian infighting, but to achieve specific political objectives. Once a Palestinian party has gone into battle against the forces that reject the settlement terms as they now stand, this party will automatically be associated with Israel -- so much so, that it will then be hard for them to stand up to Israel in the future, even in order to dispute settlement terms that are worse than those on offer today. Israel knows that for some people, the peace settlement is little more than a vehicle to power, pure and simple.

The cease-fire cannot therefore be considered a realistic step forward for the Palestinians, unless it is now followed by other steps to help foil the US-Israeli scenario.

For the past two years, I have repeatedly called for a unified Palestinian strategy that would define common objectives as well as the appropriate methods for resisting the occupation. The great challenge facing the Palestinians today is to find a balance that will enable them to survive for a long period while resisting occupation and refusing the terms it seeks to impose on them. Had we been able to agree on such a strategy two years ago, many lives would have been saved, the struggle would have been more effective, and Palestinian political discourse would have been conducted in the tones of a legitimate national liberation struggle. Restrictions on resistance must not be discussed in isolation from restrictions on negotiations. There is no sense in coordinating the resistance, but not the peace talks.

Palestinian negotiators must not regard the cease-fire as an achievement in itself, a trophy to lay at the feet of America and Israel, in the hope of obtaining some favour in return. God knows what kind of services one has to perform to curry favour with America in today's unipolar world! Yet so long as the Palestinian factions see the cease-fire as an involuntary compromise, forced on them by the need to maintain dialogue under the existing international circumstances, no unified strategy will be feasible.

Dialogue is not a tactical ploy, it is a strategic option. We need to make a common effort to avert domestic infighting, agree on the terms of negotiations, and reformulate Palestinian- American and Palestinian-Israeli relations. To agree to discuss resistance in isolation from all other matters would be a serious mistake, for this would reduce resistance to a habit one can abdicate, rather than a political quest to obtain worthy objectives.

The Palestinian forces that are active at home in the fight against occupation need to discuss the Palestinian political and economic situation and prepare the public for a long period of steadfastness. It is evident that the Palestinian problem will not find a just and lasting solution under Sharon. It is just as evident -- despite hopes to the contrary -- that the United States is not going to force Sharon to agree to terms acceptable to the Palestinians. Even those Palestinians who believe that their political future hinges upon US approval must understand that the latter is not prepared to impose a just solution on Israel. The future of the Palestinians is contingent upon their own struggle and their well-informed political efforts, as well as upon their ability to influence public opinion within the United States.

Many things need to be discussed before the Palestinians can agree on how to run a viable economy and improve such areas as education in the occupied territories. Unless this discussion takes place, any money invested in Palestine will turn against the resistance, and will function simply as a way of encouraging the Palestinians to give in to US and Israeli demands. There can be little hope for justice and steadfastness in Palestine if the resistance recedes from its place in public life, and if the population is held captive by those who oppose the resistance in principle, and who are alarmed by the mere fact of the people's resolve to reject an unjust peace.

Unless the Palestinians are determined to continue the struggle, the cease-fire may simply disrupt the resistance and discourage the young from joining its ranks. Membership in the resistance is not always a matter of ideological belief or an effort undertaken within the framework of some centralised organisation. Those who join the resistance do so because of the existing momentum and because they need a vehicle to vent their anger against the occupation. Political militants have reason to fear that the cease-fire may weaken the momentum of the resistance and disrupt the link between the resistance and the youth who might have provided it with new supporters.

In a sense, the cease-fire is a test of the political cohesion of the resistance groups -- of their ability to continue or interrupt the fight as needed, or in line with decisions made by the nationalist movement. The cease-fire is also an opportunity for the many Palestinian groups to overcome their haphazardness and formulate a cohesive national strategy, informed by a consistent political vision. For this to happen, the various Palestinian factions should begin by agreeing on the lowest common denominator they are all willing to accept.

Such behaviour is not a luxury, but a strategic necessity. At this point in the struggle against occupation, the strategic needs of the Palestinians have to be forged into a national consensus. It is hard to see how those who agree on the need for consensus can continue to coordinate their actions with the occupying forces, at a time when the Israelis and Americans regard certain Palestinian factions as terrorist groups, even though these same factions are part of the domestic dialogue. At the same time, the entire Palestinian people and its nationalist movement should not be made to take the blame for local actions taken without consultation and outside the realm of the national consensus. National movements may not be in the habit of polling the entire nation for its views before conducting certain acts, but decisions should at least be made within a commonly accepted frame of reference. In short, there is a need to coordinate on matters of peace, as well as of resistance.



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