When I entered the title of this article into Google, the search engine came up with 3,640,000 history books, historical novels and poems glorifying a battle or lamenting its aftermath. In Arab political literature, there is only one work (that I, at least, am aware of) with this title. It is by the great leftist thinker, Mohamed Sid Ahmed.
Written shortly after the October 1973 War, it advocates rethinking the question of peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict. When I started writing this article, on Friday morning, 21 May, I had just heard that a ceasefire agreement in the war in Gaza had been reached at 2:00 am. Few details had been made public, of course.
All we knew was that Israel had agreed to halt its military operations at that time and that this was conditional on Hamas reciprocating. Egypt, for its part, announced that it would send delegations to Israel and Gaza to secure the ceasefire.
Generally, in such cases, the guns fall silent at the time specified in the ceasefire agreement. However, sometimes they continue to sound until the front reaches what strategists term a stability point. Something of this sort occurred in the October 1973 War.
After Henry Kissinger brokered the ceasefire, he flew to Israel only to encounter a storm of anger. The Israelis had hoped to broaden the breach they made on the Egyptian front. In his memoirs, Years of Upheaval, Kissinger relates that, in order to calm Golda Meir down, he told her that it took a long time before the ceasefire could take full effect in Vietnam. In all events, the ceasefire in the 1973 War did not go into effect until 26 October.
It is also generally the case that both sides in a conflict have contingents opposed to a ceasefire. In this case, one contingent on one side may still hold out hopes for a decisive victory while another contingent on the other side might argue that the resistance still has the strength to keep fighting without incurring defeat.
In the fourth Gaza war (the previous three occurred in 2008, 2012 and 2014), some in Gaza held that the fact that Hamas’s missiles could hit Tel Aviv meant that liberation was in sight or that the Palestinians could attain concrete gains, especially in Jerusalem. In Israel, there were those who believed that as long as Israel had managed to destroy 60 per cent of Hamas’s and the Islamic Jihad’s military capacities above and below ground – thus eliminating a sizable number of its senior commanders – then it should finish the job in order to prevent a fifth war.
Aside from such views, however, the ceasefire went into effect at its set time because of intensive international and Arab pressure and because the two sides needed time to take stock. In Israel, where they thought the Palestinian cause had been buried once and for all beneath the cumulative conflicts and contradictions of this region, they had to grapple with the question of how this cause could have reasserted itself so forcefully. In Palestine, some paused to ask how the Palestinian government came to be split into a “negotiating” authority and a “resistance” authority and whether the Lebanese model of the Hizbullah state within the state was the best formula for Palestinians aspiring to an independent state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
No sooner had the thunder of guns, the roar of fighter planes and the screech of missiles fallen silent than the thinking took off in two directions on both sides. One direction was towards the notion that the ceasefire was an opportunity to catch one’s breath, grasp the lessons learned and prepare for round five with even more numerous missiles, a reinforced iron dome and, for one side, greater power to eradicate Palestinians above and below ground. Such a catastrophe would change not only geography but also demographics.
In the other direction there is the notion that wars, disastrous as they are, also create opportunities. After the horrifying scenes of destruction, of corpses, bleeding bodies, families running for shelter, smoke and fire and bombed out buildings, it takes considerable courage to seize the opportunity, probably more courage than it took to take the decision to go to war.
Whether the ceasefire is a break or an opportunity will be decided by the political and military elites. But, in the process, they will need to take into account two incontrovertible facts. Firstly, the Palestinian cause refuses to be buried beneath the rubble of this region’s wars and conflicts. It will always rise again like a phoenix from the ashes because the Palestinian people still exist.
It is impossible to kill the more than six million Palestinians living in Palestine, just as it is impossible to erase the sanctity of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock from Arabs’ hearts, or the Palestinian affiliation from the hearts of the Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship. Secondly, after nearly eight decades, Israel and the Israelis have become a part of this region’s fabric. It is also a fact that, given the resurgence of anti-semitism in the West, the citizens of Israel also have nowhere to go. In any case, they have a strong and robust state, so they are not ready to pack their bags and head back to wherever they or their ancestors came from.
Both these facts compel us to be realistic and explore the means for coexistence. This entails an examination of the relevant international agreements and resolutions, as well as the various peace agreements, from the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli peace treaties to the more recent “Abraham Accords,” not to mention such regional cooperation frameworks as the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which comprises Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy.
I believe that the results of this review will lead to the conclusion that the opportunities for success and progress increase the more they are engendered by homegrown initiatives from this region, and that the price this region pays for its wars is the reward reaped by outside regional and international powers that exploit divisions and conflicts as a means to weaken, blackmail and control the countries of the region.
If great powers, such as the US and other permanent members of the UN Security Council have a role to play, this comes after the countries of the Arab region do their part. The ceasefire would not have been possible had it not been for the role played by Egypt with the full support of the Gulf countries, including Qatar. In like manner, concerted Arab efforts are essential in order to help the Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories to contend with the aftermath of war.
At the same time, they need to address another hard fact frankly. Establishing a viable Palestinian state is not something that can be accomplished solely through an agreement with Israel.
The Palestinians must come to terms with the fact that one of the essential prerequisites of statehood is that the state should hold a monopoly on legitimate recourse to armed force and on decisions of war and peace. Anything less would be a heap of precarious pacts and accommodations between rival entities in a pseudo-state.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly