Cease-fire. It's a simple concept really. Or, at least, it should be.
But for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples these two words, cease & fire, are more a metaphysical concept than a physical reality.
In the Middle East the term "cease-fire" is used more often than "peace." It is believed by many that a cease-fire must precede peace, while in truth, it has, over and over again, postponed any hope of peace.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has proclaimed that until Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat engages in a real, true cease-fire, there can be no return to the negotiating table. For Sharon and for the general Israeli public, a cease-fire is interpreted literally - a cessation of fire, hence, a cessation of wanton, random shootings, an end to suicide bombings in public, civilian settings, a total cessation of hostility. For the Israeli man, woman and child on the street a cease-fire brings with it the end of shootings, bombings, sniper fire, it means no mortars, no rocket launches, no terror, it means - no more. No more civilian targets, no more army targets.
For Yasser Arafat and for his militia and general population the concept of cease-fire is far from simple. As a matter of fact, there are many factions within the Palestinian constituency who entirely reject not only the implementation, but even the concept of a cease-fire. Islamic terrorist groups, specifically, reject Arafat's decision to engage in any form of negotiation with the Israelis. For them, a cease-fire is the first stage in negotiation. It is a step towards the negotiating table. And these Islamic military groups will proceed towards a cessation of their fire only when - and if - they are directly, specifically, requested to by the Chairman himself.
Then there are the Palestinian street fighter factions, the masked soldiers of the Tanzim and al Aqsa brigades. These are the fighters responsible for drive-by shootings and for attacks on military outposts. These soldiers in the civilian Palestinian army accept the concept of peace fire - as long as it pertains strictly and only to areas located within pre-'67 boundaries. Only. These people absolutely reject, in deed and in word, any cessation of their activity in the areas they call "occupied," the areas of Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Will Israel budge in their definition of a cease-fire? No. But they will be flexible on the number of days they require for a cease-fire to be implemented and acceptable as a precursor for resumed negotiations. Until now, as outlined in both American brokered documents, Mitchell and Tenet, a ten-day period of ceased fire was the minimum Israeli requirement needed before the move to resumed negotiations. Experience has proved that this has not, shall not, be the case.
Can the Palestinians be held to a cease-fire? Can Arafat compel his people to hold their fire? History has proven that when he wants to, yes, he can. And he has. For one day, two days, even a week. And then his population becomes restless. And then Arafat gives that imperceptible nod to terror and the killings, the drive-bys, the violence resumes.
If the Palestinians cannot sustain a cease-fire does Israel really believe that they can sustain a peace? Probably not. But it is a risk they are willing to take.
In order to give peace a chance, the parties must first give the cease-fire a fair chance.Israeli-based Micah D. Halpern, is an educator, theologian and historian. He lectures frequently, both in the United States and Israel, on issues relating to intellectual history, popular culture, religious studies, the Holocaust and inter-religious communication. He is the founding director of the Jerusalem Center for European Study. He can be contacted at: JCommMicah@aol.com