Support grows for Palestinian truce

MANAMA JUNE 26. In agreeing to a conditional three-month ceasefire against Israel, the Palestinians appear to have seized the initiative in the diplomacy surrounding the enforcement of the peace "road map" set in motion earlier this month.

The Palestinians are expected to formally announce the ceasefire decision covering the Palestinian territories and Israel, during the weekend visit to the area by the U.S. National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice. The Palestinians are likely to follow up their decision to hold fire by accepting responsibility to take over the security of Gaza Strip and possibly, Bethlehem.

The Palestinian Authority had so far been hesitating to take up this charge, because the extremist Palestinian group, Hamas, was not on board. But now with Hamas, despite its internal differences, agreeing to the ceasefire, the Palestinian Authority has a reasonable chance of ensuring that suicide bombers do not attack Israelis.

The Hamas had so far spearheaded suicide attacks, though the Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, associated with the mainstream Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), had also been involved in terror attacks.

While there are powerful internal forces within the Palestinian groups that still oppose the ceasefire, there is a reasonable chance that it might hold. Media reports suggest that the key spiritual leader of the Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who is enormously influential, is backing the ceasefire move. Mr. Yassin had apparently declared his intent to support the ceasefire to the Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, whom he met at his residence earlier this month. Khaled Mashal, a senior Hamas leader, who is based in Damascus, is another influential backer of the initiative. Marwan Barghouti, whose popularity, opinion polls show is only second to that of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, has also been instrumental in bringing about the ceasefire decision.

The Palestinian decision has apparently pushed the Israelis to the backfoot. Israel had made it clear that the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and his security chief, Mohammad Dahlan, should confront and disarm the Hamas. But by forging a ceasefire, the Palestinian leaders have averted the prospects of Palestinians fighting among themselves.

The chances of a Palestinian civil war igniting can, therefore, be virtually ruled out. The fighting capability of the Hamas has also remained preserved.

This obviously does not suit the Israelis, who have been demanding that the Hamas must be disarmed and its "terror infrastructure" dismantled.

In fact, the suspicion in Israel is that reeling under a spate of Israeli attacks, the Hamas is looking at the ceasefire as an opportunity to re-group.

Not surprisingly, top Israeli intelligence and military officials have been travelling to the U.S., to persuade Washington to pressurise the Palestinian Authority to disarm Hamas.

A top Israeli intelligence official who was in the U.S. recently, sought to demonstrate to the establishment in Washington that the Palestinian security forces run by Mr. Dahlan and other members of the Palestinian leadership have the capacity to disarm Hamas.

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