The Peres-Arafat Agreement: Can It Work?

by Mouin Rabbani | published November 3, 2000

Within hours of the November 2 announcement that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and the Israeli Minister of Regional Cooperation, Shimon Peres, had agreed to implement the understandings reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) at the October Sharm al-Sheikh summit, Israeli soldiers shot and killed teenage Palestinian demonstrator Khalid Rezaq in the village of Hizma near Jerusalem. Another Palestinian, Adli Abeid, succumbed to wounds sustained a day earlier at the Mintar/Karni crossing on the eastern border of the Gaza Strip. Peres pleaded for "two or three days without funerals" to "normalize" the situation on the ground and permit a resumption of negotiations. But the underlying political calculus on both sides does not bode well for this latest attempt to restore the status quo as it existed immediately prior to Likud leader Ariel Sharon's September 28 entrance to the Haram al-Sharif.

The Peres-Arafat agreement, like the Sharm al-Sheikh truce, considers the current confrontation in the occupied Palestinian territories as a security problem characterized by conflict between disciplined forces. In this formula, the Israeli and Palestinian political leaders need merely to command their fighters to cease fire, in order to continue negotiations toward a permanent settlement on the basis of "bridging proposals" formulated by Israel and the United States after the collapse of the July Camp David summit.

The basic flaw in this approach is that it treats the current Palestinian uprising—now in its second month—as the cause of a security crisis rather than the symptom of a political one. Instead of negotiating a new framework for further negotiations, mediators have worked around the clock to restore Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and bring the rebellious Palestinian population to heel within the context of the Oslo accords and Camp David proposals. Yet a clear majority of Palestinians have come to reject Oslo and Camp David as camouflage for continued colonization and military occupation. This rejection precipitated and sustains the uprising.

Withdrawal to Where?

To make the Peres-Arafat formula work in practice, Israel must halt its attacks upon the Palestinians, withdraw from positions occupied during the uprising, lift the siege imposed upon Palestinian population centers and restrain the state-sponsored vigilantism of Jewish settlers.

During the past several weeks, Israeli artillery bombardments have become a nightly phenomenon from Rafah on the Gaza-Egyptian border to Jenin in the extreme north of the West Bank. Heavy caliber machine guns mounted on tanks and helicopter gunships, tank shells, LAW and TOW missiles and more recently mortar fire have destroyed or damaged numerous civilian homes, though casualties from such attacks have thus far been comparatively light. The use of such massive firepower against Palestinian population centers in response to generally ineffective small arms fire -- and sometimes without provocation -- has terrorized and enraged Palestinians. Palestinians will see the further use of such tactics, in any location and for whatever reason, as an irreparable breach of the agreements.

An Israeli withdrawal of tanks and armored vehicles from positions occupied during the crisis will do nothing to restore calm. While Israeli spokespersons often correctly state that the IDF has not physically invaded Area A (territory under full Palestinian control), the new fortified positions nevertheless sit on the edges of or just within Palestinian cities, in zones retaining the status of Area B (joint control) or C (full Israeli control). Palestinians care little if these zones are designated as A or Z, and insist that the Israeli military be removed from their cities entirely. Since the majority of Palestinian casualties have occurred at the locations the IDF currently occupies, only a full withdrawal of all Israeli forces to the positions held prior to September 28 can make a difference.

Sieges and Settlers

The siege imposed by Israel upon the Palestinian territories operates on a number of different levels: sealing the border between the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel; sealing the border between the West Bank and Jordan, and between the Gaza Strip and Egypt; closing Gaza International Airport; sealing the main intersections within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, preventing free movement of persons and goods between various Palestinian districts; sealing individual population centers off from the outside world by blocking all access roads; and imposing a round-the-clock curfew on population centers located in Areas B and C. In the Israeli-ruled heart of Hebron, H2, the 40,000 Palestinian residents have been confined to their homes 24 hours a day since the start of the uprising. In the village of Hawara outside Nablus, residents have been so confined since early October. Israel is likely to gradually lift many of these restrictions in the coming days, but not all. Further, on the eve of the uprising, Palestinians were already subjected to a regime of restrictions and permits which far exceeded anything imposed during the worst periods of the 1987-1993 intifada. This "normal" closure will continue. Anger at the endless maze of restrictions on the movement of goods and persons helped fuel the protests of the past five weeks.

Attacks on Palestinians by Jewish settlers have escalated significantly, at the height of the olive-harvesting season central to the Palestinian economy. Such attacks—ranging from uprooting trees to indiscriminate firing into residential areas to abduction and murder of villagers—are considered a form of state-sponsored terror by Palestinians not only because the settlers are armed by the state but also because the attacks are often perpetrated under the protection of military escorts. Despite IDF demands that the PA halt Palestinian demonstrations, Palestinians have reason to doubt that the military will actively prevent further settler violence. The prospect of genuine settler vigilantism is also real.

The Palestinian Authority's Tall Order

Televised scenes of Palestinian security personnel using force to prevent youths from approaching Israeli positions disprove the theory that Palestinian demonstrators are automatons turned on and off with the flick of a switch by Yasser Arafat. Such scenes should similarly disabuse viewers of the notion that the PA encourages Palestinian mothers to "sacrifice their children" to embarrass Israel on CNN. Over a quarter of the 150 dead and several thousand wounded Palestinians have been children.

The Peres-Arafat agreement calls upon Arafat to abort a mass uprising only partially of his making, one which he has controlled largely through minimal interference in its development, and led by representing the aspirations for which it stands. Even if Israel were to fully implement its own commitments, this is a tall order.

Arafat's problem is that the uniformed Palestinian forces he does control have been only marginally involved in confrontations. As far as possible, these forces have deliberately held back from participating. The uprising is being conducted, on the one hand, by masses of politically unorganized Palestinians, primarily those between the ages of 15-25 with little or no experience of the previous uprising, and on the other by armed irregulars who have picked up where the early 1990s guerilla campaign within the West Bank and Gaza Strip left off. Their tactics, enhanced by the expertise of former PLO combatants and the lessons of Israel's defeat at the hands of Hizballah, are showing increasing sophistication. The uprising's organizational structure is in turn provided by the "Nationalist and Islamic Forces in Palestine," a coalition dominated by Fatah on the basis of informal understandings with the opposition and in which all Palestinian political movements are represented. This coalition's relationship with the Palestinian leadership and the PA more generally is neither subordinate nor independent. The coalition exhibits varying degrees of organizational and geographical autonomy as circumstances demand, and permit.

Hence Arafat's position as leader of Fatah—under the best of circumstances anything but a disciplined political movement —does not automatically translate into unambiguous control of either the uprising's organizational leadership or even of Fatah's role within it. The uprising thrust to the forefront that wing of the movement which while ultimately loyal has long sought to distance Fatah from the PA and establish it as a mass-based political party. This wing has become increasingly critical of if not hostile to the Oslo process, and has seized upon the uprising to achieve its broader national and narrower political objectives.

Palestinian Opposition

Another complicating factor for Arafat is the Palestinian—and particularly Islamic—opposition. Sending a message that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is not the only one capable of forming coalitions with forces opposed to the Oslo process, the PA has largely ceased its campaign of repression against Islamic militancy, made overtures to the political leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and permitted Fatah to work with the opposition organizations. The basis for such cooperation appears to be that the opposition will not contest Fatah's domination of the uprising, so long as Fatah remains committed to its continuation, and the PA does not implement security agreements intended to abort the rebellion. The opposition is basically free to conduct activities&mdashincluding armed operations—within the occupied territories, provided it does not carry out attacks beyond the 1967 boundaries, to which the PA is resolutely opposed. Islamic Jihad's November 2 car bomb attack on a crowded market in West Jerusalem is a double message. The attack puts Israel on notice that a security agreement with the PA will not end the uprising and that continued Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians will henceforth exact a higher price. Islamic Jihad is also warning the PA that attempts to restrain the opposition within the occupied territories in the context of a security agreement will result in attacks on civilian targets within Israel which will strain Israeli-Palestinian relations to the breaking point.

A Matter of Time

So the Peres-Arafat agreement's broader political context forms yet a third set of challenges to its implementation. Fatah is highly unlikely to to lay down its arms unless it can demonstrate tangible benefits for doing so. A restoration of the status quo ante can hardly be considered a Palestinian achievement. More to the point, if Fatah were to abandon the uprising now, it will surrender much of the mass support lost during the past seven years but recouped during the past month, and the uprising will in any case continue under more militant leadership, including presumably a substantial number of ex-Fatah cadres. Fatah appears to have made its choice between coordination with Israel to restore Oslo and cooperation with the opposition to terminate the occupation.

The PA, and Arafat personally, are confronted with Fatah's same dilemma. While neither the Sharm al-Sheikh truce nor the Peres-Arafat agreement give the Palestinians a quid pro quo for aborting the uprising, most senior PA officials are already on record as demanding both a revised political framework for further negotiations and an expansion of international sponsorship beyond Washington, which has in many respects been less forthcoming than Tel Aviv.

On balance, it appears that neither Israel nor the Palestinians will be able to implement their commitments pursuant to the latest agreement, even if the other does. The agreement's political context also raises questions about the parties' willingness to fulfill their obligations. It is probably only a matter of time before the agreements break down and a new and more violent confrontation ensues. This time, Israel will continue to use massive firepower against unarmed civilian demonstrators and heavy weaponry against armed irregulars within population centers and against "sensitive" border areas, but also increasingly resort to special operations and economic warfare. Israel also appears determined to set the stage for an open confrontation with the Palestinian security services so as to exercise more and more direct political pressure on the political leadership. If the PA submits to the Camp David proposals, fine. If not, Israel will unilaterally impose these proposals in what the Barak government continues to term "Judea and Samaria." Then the PA may heed popular demands for a more equitable distribution of the body count, and might seek to transform a popular uprising against military occupation into a recognizable war of national liberation.

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