MERIP Press Information - Note 38

The Peres-Arafat Agreement: Can It Work?

By Mouin Rabbani


(Mouin Rabbani is director of the Palestinian American Research Center in

Ramallah, the West Bank.)

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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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--including 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.


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


(When quoting from this PIN, please cite MERIP Press Information Note 38,

"The Peres-Arafat Agreement: Can It Work?" by Mouin Rabbani, November 3,



For analysis of the failure of the Sharm al-Sheikh truce, see MERIP Press

Information Note 34: After the Sharm al-Sheikh Summit: An Armed and

Temporary Truce:

For background on the uprising, see the special primer at MERIP's home page:

The winter issue of Middle East Report (MER 217) will focus entirely on the

uprising and its likely regional impact. To order individual copies or

subscribe to Middle East Report, please call Blackwell Publishers at



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