Palestinian truce offers hope for kick-starting talks

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 12:00am

Since the weekend, Palestinian security forces have been patrolling parts of the Gaza Strip often used by militant groups for launching strikes on Israelis. Their presence has contributed to what is for now a fragile truce. And the latest hopeful sign is the agreement from the Palestinian factions to continue holding their fire and await Israel's response.

While there are Israeli hardliners who voice doubts about Palestinian sincerity, comments from other government officials indicate there is reason to be optimistic about a more lasting ceasefire.

This in turn leaves room for talks to resume. Dialogue may be limited to security topics at the moment but that is an accomplishment, considering that all ties had been cut off earlier this month. If a ceasefire can be endorsed by both sides and made more formal, higher-level diplomacy and a return to substantive talks on statehood for the Palestinians should be possible in a way they were not during the final years of Yasser Arafat's rule.

Recently elected Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas deserves some credit for the recent progress. He has been persuasive in days of talks with the militants. He has also moved quickly to send Palestinian police and armed guards to areas used as staging grounds for rocket and suicide attacks.

Meanwhile, the Israeli side has also shown restraint, waiting for Mr Abbas to get the upper hand in internal debates and agreeing to pull back military operations in areas where Palestinian police have a presence.

Of course, there are many factors upon which further progress depends. A temporary pause in the cycle of violence and retribution is just one of them. Palestinians are looking for the release of at least some of the prisoners being held by Israel. Israel wants to see even stronger signs that the Palestinian Authority - and not the various armed factions jostling for supremacy - is in charge of security in Palestinian areas. A weeks-long truce in 2003 fell apart for lack of progress on some of these same issues.

This time, Palestinian splinter groups are arguably stronger and they want assurances about being able to share power in the new Abbas cabinet. The recent election has armed Mr Abbas with a mandate to move aggressively and win co-operation from the factions, but that mandate will wear thin if concrete results are not seen in the near term.

For now, world leaders are displaying interest in this process, encouraging both sides to return to negotiations. US and European Union envoys are expected to visit soon, while Mr Abbas is expected to address foreign ministers in Brussels.

That high level of engagement has to be maintained and the commitments made on both sides need to be monitored to see they are kept. The emerging ceasefire is only a small opening but it has to be acted upon. If this opportunity is passed up, another may not be seen for years.