The recently declared ceasefire between the Palestinians and Israelis was different and came in a different context from the too many ceasefires declared in the last six years of fierce confrontations between the two sides.
Unfortunately, what it has in common with these other ceasefires is that it is fragile and does not look as if it will last long.
When it was declared, the ceasefire was greeted with optimism not only by Palestinians and Israelis but by the outside world. The main concern was that it came against a backdrop of no political process to sustain and carry it forward.
That was always going to be a problem. It has been shown through long and bitter experience that there can be no vacuum in Palestinian-Israeli relations. Either there is confrontation or there is negotiation. The reason is both sides have firm objectives that they work toward regardless of the context.
Palestinians want an end to occupation by hook or by crook. Sometimes they pursue this objective through armed resistance and sometimes through a political process. Either way, Palestinians will not be dissuaded from seeking their independence and freedom.
Israelis, on the other hand, want to consolidate the occupation and exert different levels of control over the Palestinians. This is either done directly through the army or, preferably, whenever it is possible to do so, while a political process is underway.
For these reasons, many politicians and analysts worried that if this ceasefire came without a political context that might persuade the parties of the viability of negotiations over confrontations, the ceasefire would soon collapse. Unfortunately, that is exactly what seems to be happening now.
Without a political context, the other aspects of relations between the two sides are left untouched. The siege on Gaza, which is engendering poverty and frustration, is left intact, while in the West Bank, not only are arrests and assassinations continuing and restrictions on movement as draconian as ever, but Jewish settlements there continue expanding in contradiction to international law. For Palestinians, the ceasefire thus becomes a means by which Israel can continue its occupation and all measures that derive from it without paying any price. On the Israeli side, meanwhile, the lack of a political process merely increases fears that Palestinian groups will use the time to rearm and prepare for the next round of fighting.
One of the new aspects of this ceasefire was that it was the first time Hamas was the political and military counterpart to Israel. Hamas entered into the ceasefire, after sustained involvement of the outside Hamas leadership, partly to assert its strength by showing it could enforce a ceasefire. The ceasefire was thus, partly, for short-term political gain.
That is also true on the Israeli side. Continued rocket fire on the south of Israel had led to mounting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, and to ease that pressure Olmert needed the ceasefire.
Regionally, meanwhile, people had hopes that the ceasefire would offer an opportunity for the international community to step up its involvement. It was certainly a cue for foreign ministers from a dozen different countries around the world to turn up in the region.
Surprisingly, however, most of these envoys came merely to hear about the situation and “encourage” the parties to move forward. This disappointed people here who expected the representatives of the Quartet, the G8 and others to use their leverage on the parties to force them to resume political negotiations. People were also hoping that these envoys might work actively to end the humanitarian suffering imposed on the Palestinian people and force the parties to adhere to international law in their behavior.
But with these diplomatic activities limited to exploration, Palestinian-Israeli relations will continue to deteriorate and the collapse of the ceasefire seems imminent. Linked to this is the deterioration in Palestinian-Palestinian relations, especially after the failure of the internal dialogue to form a national unity government.