The issue of a ceasefire is best understood in the light of the general rule that as long as there is oppressive and violent occupation there will always be resistance, including violent resistance. Once that is understood, it should be equally clear that the only way to reduce or end violent confrontations is through a political process that at the very least promises an end to this occupation.
The argument is easily illustrated by casting an eye back over the last 40 years of this belligerent and illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The only period of relative calm during that time was between 1996-2000, during the “healthy” years of the Oslo-inspired peace process. These years gave Palestinians a reason to believe that the occupation was coming to an end. As a result, Palestinians were ready to give this process a chance and instead focus on issues such as state and institution building.
It is no coincidence that the collapse of negotiations at Camp David was followed by an outbreak of confrontations and violence between the two sides. The period after the election of Hamas also witnessed a relative reduction in violence, at least from the Palestinian side. Israel undertook two extremely punishing and deadly raids into the Gaza Strip, one in June and one in October, leading to over a hundred Palestinian deaths, including many children and innocent bystanders. Nevertheless, a Gaza truce was agreed in November last year. Under the terms of this unwritten agreement, Hamas accepted to end its violent activities from the Strip if Israel ended its violent attacks on the Strip. But violence in the West Bank was excluded from the agreement.
That defect carried with it its eventual failure. The West Bank and Gaza are not separate entities. They are the home to the same people under the same conditions, fighting the same struggle and led by the same political parties and factions. The exclusion of the West Bank was wholly artificial. Thus, when Israel dramatically escalated its violence in different areas of the West Bank last week, killing nine Palestinian in less than 24 hours, the factions in Gaza, including Hamas, announced an end to the truce.
That is not to say a ceasefire is bound to fail. But for any such end to violence to be sustainable, two conditions must obtain. First, any ceasefire has to be comprehensive and include both the West Bank and Gaza. But second, and more importantly, any ceasefire must come in the context of a political initiative that addresses the root cause of the violence, which is of course the occupation.
On a related note, Hamas has, by its willingness and ability to implement a ceasefire, sent a message to the world that it can be a counterpart to Israel not only in military confrontations but also in ending the violence and possibly in a political process. Hamas also implicitly told the international community that it was ready to abide by at least one of the Quartet’s conditions, namely ending the violence.
Hamas’ willingness to send those signals again underscores the argument that ceasefires need political contexts. If a political context is either not created or is created and then ignored, ceasefires will only ever be lulls in fighting during which the parties take the opportunity to re-arm and prepare for yet another round of violence.