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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Palestinian “Temporary Cease-Fire”: Israel’s Political Risks and Opportunities with the Sharm el-Sheikh Summit between Prime Minister Sharon and Chairman Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen)

Filed under: Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad, Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Radical Islam
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 4, No. 16     February 7, 2005

  • The election of Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), along with Israel’s political and military pressure, has brought about a change in the Palestinian Authority’s policy on continuing the “armed intifada.” At the same time, the paramount interest of Hamas and Islamic Jihad is to reorganize and rebuild their capabilities after they were severely degraded by the Israel Defense Forces.

  • The “calm” that the terror organizations are supplying is aimed primarily at enabling the Palestinian Authority to negotiate a hudna (cessation of hostilities) with Israel from a more comfortable political position in which the political “ball” is in Israel’s court.

  • The hudna offered by the Palestinians has two main aspects: that it be mutually obligatory, and that it be conditional on Israel’s performance with regard to a long list of Palestinian demands (releasing prisoners, ceasing military actions in the PA territories, removing checkpoints, resolving the status of wanted fugitives, stopping the construction of the security fence, etc.).

  • According to the expanded Palestinian concept of hudna, “resistance to occupation” remains legitimate, along with a readiness to renew the struggle against Israel simultaneously with the opening of political channels.

  • While the opportunities presented by the new political reality include a de facto end of the armed intifada, the return of normality to the PA, and the coordination of the disengagement, there are also risks for Israel. These include a failure to dismantle the terror infrastructure, international pressure on Israel to show flexibility and restraint even after outbreaks of terror, and acceptance of Hamas’s integration into the PA – in effect, acquiescing to that organization’s political legitimacy.


“Calm” Does Not Mean “Cease-Fire”


The election of Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) on 9 January 2005 as Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, along with Israel’s political and military pressure, has brought about a change in PA policy on continuing the “armed intifada.” The negotiations that Abu Mazen is conducting with Palestinian terror organizations, headed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have already produced basic understandings on new rules for the struggle, primarily involving the rehabilitation of the PA, acceptance of the new rules of the game, discussion of relations between the armed factions and the PA, and basic agreement on a period of “calm” (tahdi’a) in the security sphere.1 Here it is important to focus on the Arabic terminology being used and not rely on the English word “cease-fire” that is often cited in the Western press.

The term “calm” represents a careful approach by both the PA and the terror organizations. It signifies a declaration of intent that does not require an agreement between the sides and is meant to enable continued discussions with Israel on the conditions for a hudna or cessation of hostilities.2 It is neither a unilateral cease-fire nor an acceptance of Israel’s conditions, but rather a reversible, tactical step if Israel does not provide the appropriate political compensation according to Palestinian expectations. On the Palestinian side, there is broad agreement that the PA will not grant Israel a “free cease-fire.”3

The “calm” on the part of the terror organizations is aimed primarily at enabling the Palestinian Authority to negotiate a hudna with Israel from a more comfortable political position in which the political “ball” is in Israel’s court. The announcement by Israel’s chief of staff (on 28 January 2005) that the IDF is curtailing offensive military actions in PA territory4 is regarded as an important signal, but this by no means satisfies Palestinian demands.5

The hudna proposed by the Palestinian side is based on two main principles:

  1. A mutually obligatory hudna: By means of the principle of reciprocity, the Palestinians are trying to evade their responsibility for terror over the past four and a half years, seeking to undermine Israel’s claim to be defending itself against a terror offensive. As Hamas views it, such a stance reflects the “position of strength” the Palestinians have gained through “armed resistance” in forcing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria that is not conditioned on any Palestinian concession.6

  2. A conditional hudna with “escape clauses”: The Palestinian commitment to the proposed cease-fire does not rest on political, legal, or moral recognition of the illegitimacy of Palestinian terror but rather on political cost-benefit calculations. Therefore, in presenting their conditions for implementing the hudna, the Palestinians assume that the terror will likely be renewed if Israel fails to meet those conditions. The paramount interest of Hamas and Islamic Jihad is to reorganize and rebuild their capabilities after they were severely degraded by the Israel Defense Forces. Thus, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal referred to the hudna as a “rest for the warrior.”7



Palestinian Conditions for a Cease-Fire


The Palestinian Authority is presenting extensive initial conditions for negotiations on a hudna that is supposed to replace the short-lived tahdi’a. The Palestinian demands that have taken shape in the negotiations with the terror organizations include the following:8

  1. The terror organizations demand the release of all Palestinian prisoners as a “basic condition” for the hudna.
  2. Ending Israeli military activity in PA territory.
  3. Upholding all aspects of the PA’s “sovereignty” (including control of airspace, water resources, etc.).
  4. Israeli withdrawal to the lines of 29 September 2000 and removal of checkpoints, roadblocks, and military emplacements that restrict Palestinian freedom of movement.
  5. Ending the policy of “targeted interceptions.”
  6. Resolving the problem of wanted fugitives via an agreement that was reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2003.
  7. Ceasing construction of the security fence and construction in settlements.



For Abu Mazen, Cease-Fire Does Not Mean an End to “Resistance”


According to the expanded Palestinian concept of hudna, “resistance to occupation” remains legitimate as a major element in sustaining the struggle against Israel simultaneously with the opening of political channels. According to Abu Mazen, “resistance to occupation” is “a right that is implicit in international covenants,” one that “the Palestinian people will never relinquish.” In Abu Mazen’s view, this “right” is to be fitted into current political circumstances in a way that brings maximum benefit in both international public opinion and at the political level, and prevents the continued “tarnishing” of the Palestinian struggle by defining it as terrorism.9

In this context, political and popular agitation (in the form of violent demonstrations) against the security fence is viewed as a successful model of the preferred approach for the Palestinian Authority. Even though Abu Mazen himself disparaged turning the intifada into a military struggle, “resistance to occupation” also includes, according to some of the terror organizations, the use of weapons in the territories (including Jerusalem) against military targets and settlers in response to what they perceive as Israeli “aggression.” Abu Mazen indicated this himself when he stated in March 2003 that “resistance by any means is legitimate” with regard to Israeli settlers.10

Since his election, Abu Mazen has sought to restore public confidence in the Palestinian Authority and its leadership, restore normalcy to the PA, strengthen the status of the Palestinian security forces, subordinate the struggle against Israel to policy considerations, and reorganize Palestinian society through democratic elections, integration of all forces into the political structures, and enforcement of law and order. Preferring dialogue with the terror organizations to confrontation, while also carrying out a rapid process of democratization that is open to all, Abu Mazen is garnering broad support for his leadership while creating room to maneuver in the first stage of the political processes involving Israel and the United States.


Abu Mazen’s Strategy: Change the Focus from Palestinian Terror to Israeli Occupation


Abu Mazen wants to be viewed as someone who has met the conditions of the first stage of the road map with regard to political and security reforms, and as someone who deals appropriately with Palestinian terror, even if this proves more complicated and time-consuming than initially expected. Beyond the tactical objective of moving the ball to the Israeli court and changing the focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Palestinian terror to the “Israeli occupation,” Abu Mazen wants to get the U.S. administration and the European Union to pressure Israel to implement the principle of withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank. He further seeks to accelerate the process of recognizing a Palestinian state in temporary borders as a complementary step to the disengagement process, while launching negotiations on a final settlement. The Palestinian Authority has an interest in deferring the road map’s “tests” regarding neutralization of the terror infrastructure to a later stage of the establishment of the Palestinian state.

The present political situation confronts Israel with both risks and opportunities:


  1. Reorganization of the Palestinian system under a stable government.
  2. Renewing the political negotiations with the Palestinian Authority toward a resolution of the conflict.
  3. A de facto cessation of the armed intifada in the forms it has taken since September 2000.
  4. Spreading Abu Mazen’s pragmatic political approach to all the power actors in the Palestinian Authority.
  5. Changing the unilateral disengagement to a process coordinated with the Palestinian side (rather than a retreat under fire).
  6. Restoring normalcy to Israeli-Palestinian relations, while creating conditions that inhibit the renewal of violence.


  1. The Palestinian Authority does not entirely reject the principle of armed struggle (“under appropriate circumstances”) and seeks to legitimize “resistance to occupation” in international public opinion.
  2. Abu Mazen prefers the path of dialogue and understanding with the terror organizations and does not aim to dismantle the terror infrastructure, which remains as a potential threat to both the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
  3. The conditional hudna may turn out to be a political trap for Israel that constrains its freedom of action against terror.
  4. The international community may demand that Israel show political flexibility and great restraint, even if terror breaks out, in light of Abu Mazen’s image as “the only pragmatic option” on the Palestinian side.
  5. After the stage of containment, which aims at stabilizing the Authority’s status both domestically and in the eyes of the international community, the Palestinian Authority may launch an intensified political offensive while renewing the “legitimate” popular struggle against the “Israeli occupation,” which carries a high potential for conflict at a time when Israel is in an inferior position both politically and in terms of public opinion.
  6. The integration of Hamas and other organizations into the Palestinian government may enhance their political power and gain them political legitimacy without requiring them to discard their guiding ideology of terror. Israel’s acceptance of this process could be interpreted as acquiescence.



What Should Israel Do?


Supporting Abu Mazen’s new Palestinian government by easing conditions and undertaking confidence-building measures may help reinforce his domestic position. This could include resolving the problem of wanted Palestinian fugitives, transferring West Bank cities to Palestinian security control, removing checkpoints and roadblocks, releasing prisoners, granting additional work permits in Israel, and helping to mobilize funds for economic development in the Palestinian Authority.

Israel should seek to renew the dialogue and cooperation that existed until the outbreak of the intifada. It should publicize the confidence-building measures on a date that is convenient for Abu Mazen so that he can present them as an achievement for his pragmatic political approach and use them in upcoming election campaigns against Hamas. However, Israel should insist on the principle of reciprocity and should apply a phased approach to easing conditions as leverage for creating a Palestinian interest in maintaining the hudna over time.

It should be stressed that as of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, Palestinian security forces have not confiscated illegal firearms, nor have they incarcerated active terrorists, except for a handful who were only jailed for a few hours and then released. Furthermore, the Iz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas officially took responsibility for launching 13 mortar and 6 Kassam rocket attacks against Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip between 27 January and 2 February 2005, claiming that they recorded 349 violations of the tahdi’a by Israel and threatening further actions.11

Israel must oppose any official commitment to Palestinian conditions for the hudna. Israel must insist on its right to act against terror under any circumstances. Yet it could reach an informal agreement to an acceptable hudna under the auspices of the United States.

Israel should insist on a clear and official announcement from the Palestinian Authority declaring an end to the intifada. This is also important as recognition of responsibility for the outbreak of the armed violence. On the basis of such a declaration, Israel can then move to discuss other steps to return the situation to what it was before September 2000.

Israel should seek early coordination of positions with the U.S. administration with regard to its expectations in the political process, on the criteria for determining whether the Palestinian Authority has removed the terror infrastructure, on preventing incitement, and on establishing a monitoring mechanism to ensure that aid money is not channeled directly or indirectly to Hamas.

Finally, Israel must recognize its inability to significantly affect the Palestinian political map. Therefore, Israel should regard the Palestinian Authority as an independent political entity that must take full responsibility for terrorism emanating from its territory, similarly to how Israel regards Jordan and Egypt, where there are also Islamic movements that have broad popular support, while avoiding the impression that Israel accepts the integration of Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the Palestinian government.


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2. In 1994, the Saudi grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, clarified that any hudna (cessation of hostilities) was only temporary: “The peace between the leader of the Muslims in Palestine and the Jews does not mean that the Jews will permanently own the lands which they now possess. Rather it only means that they would be in possession of it for a period of time until either the truce comes to an end, or until the Muslims become strong enough to force them out of Muslim lands.” “Fatwa Concerning the Peace Treaty,”, quoted in Dore Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Washington: Regnery, 2003), pp. 195-6.
7. Ibid.
10. Ibid.


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Lt. Col. Jonathan D. Halevi is a researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam, and a founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. He is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the IDF.