Although Israel has reportedly agreed to curtail its policy of targeted attacks against Palestinian terrorists to foster the chances of a limited cease-fire that would halt two weeks of violence, Israeli analysts were skeptical it would work.
"It lasts a couple of days until a crazy sets off a bomb," said David Newman, chairman of the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
The apparent shift in Israeli policy came in response to an American move to resuscitate the so-called road map to peace that had been widely heralded just two weeks ago. Since then, about 60 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed in violence triggered by the killing of four Israeli soldiers by three Palestinian terrorists at a security checkpoint in Gaza.
Political analyst Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said he would take any talk of a cease-fire with a "grain of salt." He noted that after Israel attempted to kill Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi last week, there were reports that Israel had promised the U.S. to restrict targeted killings to those on the verge of carrying out a terrorist attack.
"So there is nothing new here," Alpher said.
There were also reports that Israel might not respond to terrorist attacks if the Palestinian Authority were seen to be making real efforts to deal with the terrorists.
Israel’s Tourism Minister, Benny Elon, told a press conference in New York this week that the only talks Israel would engage in are those that "deter bloodshed." He said Israel was determined to "crush Hamas and other terrorist groups. … [and] uproot the infrastructure of terrorism."
These developments came against a backdrop of attempts by the Palestinian Authority to broker a cease-fire with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups. Such discussions have been sporadic for the last six months, but media reports at midweek suggested that a breakthrough was imminent.
But the conditions under which a cease-fire would take hold were unclear. Israel is said to want to give Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas six weeks to consolidate control before it would expect him to begin dismantling the terrorist groups. But other reports suggested that Abbas, who is widely known was Abu Mazen, wants to bring the terrorists and their weapons under the umbrella of his security apparatus and to give Hamas a political role in his government.
Hamas leaders were said to view it as an effort to wrest concessions from Israel, including a withdrawal of Israeli troops from some if not all of the Gaza Strip. Others suggested that Hamas is actually bowing to the desire of the Palestinian public and other Arab nations to end the violence. They note that the three terrorists who gunned down four Israeli soldiers at the Gaza checkpoint forced Israel to close the border to thousands of other Palestinians from Gaza who were waiting in line to enter Israel for work.
"They sense that the people want to give [the road map] a chance," said Reserve Gen. Danny Rothschild. "The PLO is ready to take authority for the territory, and Israel is ready to leave. That’s some light at the end of the tunnel."
He suggested that Hamas expects the cease-fire to fail, weakening the Palestinian Authority and affirming its belief that peace with Israel is impossible.
But Newman of Ben Gurion University said he would expect Hamas to "test Sharon" during a six-week cease-fire and that it would be "hard for Sharon not to respond."
"I think Abu Mazen’s power is limited and I’m skeptical of a cease-fire," he said.
Alpher questioned whether Hamas, which has never wavered in its vow to establish an Islamic state in what is now the State of Israel, would halt attacks against all Israelis or just those within the Green Line, Israel’s 1967 border. In the past, Hamas has insisted that Israelis and soldiers in the territories were fair game.
The talks between Abbas and the terrorist groups ended Tuesday night without agreement and were slated to resume late this week. Shortly after they broke up, a 7-year-old Israeli girl, Noam Leibovitz, was shot and killed and her 5-year-old sister, Shira, seriously wounded when the car in which they were riding inside of Israel came under fire from across the Green Line. Their 11-year-old brother and 70-year-old grandfather were lightly wounded. Eight members of the Leibovitz family were in the vehicle at the time, returning from a bar mitzvah celebration in Jerusalem.
The terrorist fired the fatal shots after crawling under a cement wall that is being erected as part of a security barrier to separate the West Bank city of Kalkilya from Israel.
"Supporters [of the barrier] say that once it is completed, such attacks will not be possible," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
He suggested that the attack was carried out at that location in an effort by the terrorists to "show the weakness of unilateral separation."
Steinberg too was skeptical of a lasting cease-fire, saying: "You could have hundreds of people killed in six weeks. We’re close to the situation in which [former Prime Minister Shimon] Peres was in in early 1996. Unless there are results on the ground, the Israeli government will not stand for more attacks. And the idea that it would allow six weeks of attacks is a non-starter."
The fact that Hamas would now actually consider a cease-fire just hours before Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to arrive in Israel to press ahead with the road map has caught some by surprise. Just last week after the failed Israeli assassination of Rantisi, Hamas threatened to assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to continue suicide attacks like the one that killed 17 Israelis on a Jerusalem bus last Wednesday.
Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, suggested that Hamas’ reversal stems from the group’s desire to formalize a balance of power with the Israeli Army, similar to the standoff that emerged between Hezbollah terrorists and the Israeli Army along the Lebanese border before Israel withdrew in 2000.
"What Hamas wants to do is to say, ‘If you’re going to intrude into Palestinian territory, we’re going to do the same in Israel,’" he said. "This is really the formulization of the status quo" after nearly three years of being unable to defeat Hamas.
Abbas would embrace such a development because he has pledged never to fight the militants for fear it would trigger a civil war. Frisch said it would also allow Abbas to say he has fulfilled his part of the road map, which calls for an end to the violence.
But Yosef Ginat, a professor at Haifa University, told Israel Radio that what was shaping up was not a truce with Israel but rather "an internal Palestinian agreement."
"It doesn"t even include disarming," he said.
Israeli officials have been wary of a cease-fire, saying it would just be used as an excuse by the terrorists to rearm and regroup after the pounding they have taken from Israeli forces.
A cease-fire would also come just days after Sharon pledged to the Knesset that he would "pursue and catch every initiator of terrorism and its perpetrators in every place and at every time until victory."
President George W. Bush, who initially criticized Israel for its attack on Rantisi, did an about-face last weekend after coming under strong criticism from American Jewish leaders and members of Congress. He has now called on Arab nations to halt the funding of Hamas and insisted that it should be dismantled.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said any cease-fire agreement should be a prelude to disarming Hamas.
Many Israelis agree that a violent confrontation by the Palestinian Authority against the terrorists is inevitable if peace is to be achieved. "If the Palestinian Authority were to crackdown on Hamas, you would see a lot of people who were supporting Hamas shift because nobody wants to support a loser," said Shmuel Bar, an anti-terrorism expert at the Herzlyia Interdisciplinary Center. "It’s almost an axiom in Palestinian politics."
Stewart Ain is a staff writer.
Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent.