But a week that began promisingly has ended in stalemate between Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya and resistance groups committed to further action. Even among the groups there was bitter disagreement over how to proceed.
Hamas, Fatah and 10 other Palestinian groups met near Cairo to formally discuss the possilibility of declaring a ceasefire. The talks were mediated by Egyptian Intelligence Affairs Minister Umar Sulayman.
All of them have made clear that any ceasefire requires a clear commitment by Israel to stop construction of the apartheid wall in the West Bank, to halt Jewish settlement expansion, and to withdraw troops from Palestinian cities reoccupied after an uprising began in 2000.
A truce under any other terms, such as that declared unilaterally by Hamas and Islamic Jihad this past summer, would simply not do, they said.
Islamic Jihad has ruled out a cessation of anti-Israel attacks
In a statement issued from Gaza on Friday, Islamic Jihad said it would not abide by any agreement reached in Cairo.
The groups have also emphasised the importance of maintaining a unified position throughout the talks. Unity, it seems, takes precedence over any actual ceasefire.
“We will discuss the truce in the framework of the entire Palestinian situation, we will clarify the importance of agreeing on a strategy to define the goals and means of the Palestinian struggle, and to form a unity leadership. Then this leadership will decide when, where and how to carry out our struggle,” said Jamil Majdalawi of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) political bureau.
According to Ghazi Hammad, editor of the Hamas newsletter, al-Risala, the onus now rests on Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya (also known as Abu Alaa) to put pressure on the Israelis and to gain the approval of the Palestinian people.
“Abu Alaa should convince the Palestinian people that he can adopt all the Palestinian demands: to stop all kinds of [Israeli] aggression, to [lift] the closures and curfews and to guarantee free movement between the Palestinian cities, and to focus on the prisoner issue,” said Hammad.
“To convince the Palestinian people to resume the peace process … [Quraya] has to show that he is a strong leader and he can stand against Israel,” he added.
A mutual ceasefire
Quraya’s actions so far have not been at odds with Hammad’s position, as he outlined in Gaza last week.
He reaffirmed that the only successful recipe for a ceasefire would be one with mutual agreement between the parties.
“There is no truce for free, we want a mutual ceasefire, our people are suffering – they are being subjected to Israeli aggression. To achieve a truce this has to stop,” he said.
Quraya himself arrived in the Egyptian capital late on Saturday, but delegates said that the lack of progress in the talks had cast massive doubts over his participation.
Stark divisions have emerged between the groups after five of them rejected a one-year truce proposed by Egypt on the grounds that Israel offered nothing in return.
The movements appeared split down the middle late Saturday with six factions supporting the idea of a one year truce, and one other movement in favour so long as several tough conditions are fulfilled.
Quraya (L) meets Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, spiritual leader of Hamas
But five key groups – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), al-Saika and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (FPLP-GC) – proposed the groups pledge to “spare civilians” rather than sign up to a full-blown truce.
The Israeli government observed from a distance. So far, it considers the Cairo dialogue an internal Palestinian matter.
But it is only a matter of time, says Israeli defence analyst Alon Ben David, until the Israelis begin negotiating directly with Quraya, waiting first for him to get his house in order.
“Israel will look at [the ceasefire talks] as a Palestinian internal agreement which they will not be part of. Any agreements they make will be with Abu Alaa, who is focusing on building his legitimacy within Palestinian Ssociety first,” says Ben David.
“It’s much more important for him to first become more stable and only then start negotiating with the Israelis. The Israelis will start negotiating with him; it’s only a matter of time.”
Ben David says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is under pressure, both inside of Israel and out, to make some credible concessions.
“And if the Americans twist his arm, he will make even greater concessions, no question about it,” he says.
“I think Sharon himself is more prepared to take some actions also, such as stopping the deportation of Palestinians from the West Bank to Israel , evacuating settlements and giving away West Bank cities.
“The longer the IDF is staying [in the West Bank] the costlier it’s getting. But they want to know they are pulling out and giving the responsibility to somebody else.”
The wall’s continued construction makes a truce difficult
The apartheid wall, however, is one issue that Israelis are not willing to compromise on says Ben David, despite increasing international pressure on them to do so.
“I think that no Israeli prime minister will stop the wall. There is a very solid consensus here that it is a good thing,” he says.
Israelis, meanwhile, seem cautiously enthused about the initiative.
The majority of Israelis, says Ben David, would like to see Sharon negotiate some kind of agreement, even if it is a short-lived one. The defiant Israeli prime minister’s approval rating has plummeted to an all time low of 33%.
“They want to see that there is some kind of step forward – that we are going in some kind of direction,” he said.
“I think the mood in Israel will require that Sharon be more generous and to try harder, because currently he doesn’t offer anything else. His declarations about unilateral acts are not perceived as credible [or] as desired. Most people would not want to see unilateral acts knowing the futility of such acts,” said Ben David.
Other analysts say a declaration of any ceasefire now would have been meaningless given the political climate and ongoing Israeli aggression.
The Cairo dialogue is a strategic stepping stone for the factions involved and nothing more, says Atif Udwan, professor of political science at the Islamic University of Gaza.
“The hudna (truce) is merely a tactic to achieve specified goals for a certain period of time … to decrease the pressures of Israeli criminality against the Palestinians,” said Udwan.
“There is a general Palestinian feeling that it’s not necessary for everyone to agree on a ceasefire at this point. The conditions now are not ripe for fulfilling Palestinian or Israeli goals.
“We’re at a stage where Israeli goals are in direct contradiction to Palestinian ones. Israel wants to end the resistance and the Intifada, and this is something Palestinians cannot agree to.”
The reason the factions even went to the talks, says Udwan, was to gauge the political environment and better understand the positions of the other parties through the Egyptian mediators.
“The goal of the various groups in attendance is to find out what the [Israelis] have proposed to the PA … since there are no direct negotiations between them, and no negotiations period even on the international level.”