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Hudna-winked: How Hamas Fooled the Media

By Adam Levine

For two months last summer, Israel was granted a period of relative calm. On June 29, the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad issued a joint statement promising a three-month suspension of violence, known in Arabic as a hudna, against Israel. At the time, the media hailed the document as a sign that the groups were finally ready to participate in the peace process. The New York Times printed the text of the statement, as well as a similar statement by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, under a headline taken from Fatah’s statement: “Words of Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad: ‘Just, Lasting, and Comprehensive Peace.’”1 United Press International headlined its analysis “Hamas Gives Peace a Chance.”2 However, the calm was shattered on August 19, when a Hamas suicide bomber killed twenty people on a bus in Jerusalem; following Israel’s subsequent retaliation against a Hamas leader, the group called off the hudna. A close analysis of the document suggests that the media’s optimism was unwarranted and that the demise of the hudna was to be expected, for the hudna bore very little connection to the search for a permanent peace.

The hudna declaration begins with a preamble explaining the purpose of the document: to preserve Palestinian unity. The first clause states that the initiative came “out of our desire for the unity of the Palestinian ranks at this dangerous phase which our people and our cause are going through.” This goal is then restated several times in different forms: “To protect our internal front from the danger of schism and confrontation, and...to prevent the enemy from having any excuse to wreck it.” In other words, the adoption of the hudna signified a willingness to cooperate, not with Israel, but rather with other Palestinians—namely, the newly appointed prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). One of Abbas’s first steps after his summit with Ariel Sharon, at which the Quartet’s “road map” peace plan was officially agreed upon, was to begin hudna negotiations with the various militant groups, seeking to improve his bargaining position with Israel by achieving a period of calm. The purpose of the preamble is to make clear that the hudna is not an agreement with Israel, but merely an agreement with Abbas. In the words of Hamas official Ismail Abu Shanab, “This initiative came in response to demands from the Palestinian street and calls by brother Abu Mazen...as well as efforts made by Egypt and other Arab countries. This agreement was not reached with Israel.”3 Right away, we can see that contrary to the media’s claims, peace was not part of Hamas’s goals.

Abbas’s role in securing the hudna was widely seen as an early victory for the fledgling prime minister and as a sign of his good intentions. However, his reliance on the hudna in fact went against the intended course of the road map, which called on him to clamp down on, rather than to cooperate with, the militant groups. The first provision of the road map states that the Palestinians must promptly “declare an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism and undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere.”4 There is no mention anywhere in the document of negotiating a settlement with those groups. While the hudna may have been a good first step toward preventing violence, Abbas treated it as the only step. Much to Israel’s chagrin, he refused to take action against the militants, insisting that doing so would ignite a Palestinian civil war. Whether or not this is true, the fact remains that the road map required Abbas to clamp down on the terrorist groups, and by settling for a mere hudna, he failed in that duty.

What’s worse, the hudna prevented Israel from attacking the militant groups, allowing them time to regroup and plan new attacks against Israel in the absence of opposition from Palestinian police and Israeli defense forces. The two operative clauses of the hudna document illustrate the temporary nature of the calm it proposes. The first clause proclaims “suspension of the military operations against the Zionist enemy for three months,” in exchange for two conditions: “An immediate cessation of all forms of Zionist aggression against our Palestinian people,” and “The release of all prisoners and detainees, Palestinian and Arab, from occupation prisons without condition or restriction.” The second clause is an ultimatum: “In the event that the enemy does not heed these conditions and commitments, or breaches any of them, we see ourselves unencumbered by this initiative and we hold the enemy responsible for the consequences.” Leaving aside the harsh rhetoric and questions of moral equivalence, the first demand is fairly reasonable: it demands that Israel cease all attacks, in exchange for which Hamas and Islamic Jihad will do the same. However, the second demand is much more problematic, for it requires Israel to make an enormous permanent concession—release of prisoners—in return for a mere temporary one. The consequences of total compliance with these demands would obviously be dire for Israel. The militant groups would have three months to regroup and rebuild, with all their members freed from prison, during which time Israel would have no means of preventing future attacks. Consequently, Israel stressed from the beginning that it could not possibly abide by these terms, even though it did release several hundred prisoners (including members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad) as a gesture of goodwill to the Palestinians. The absolute nature of the demands in the first clause, coupled with the strongly worded threat in the second, clearly shows that the authors of the hudna sought to produce a declaration that would be easy to call off at a suitable time; indeed, given Israel’s response to the demands, it is amazing that the hudna held up for two months. The best explanation, I believe, is that the militant groups badly needed time to regroup, having been severely weakened by Israel’s earlier actions against them, and therefore adopted a hudna that they could break off at a convenient moment. Again, we see that the aim of the hudna was not to try to bring about a lasting peace with Israel.

Thus far, I have not translated the word hudna, for defining it is quite tricky. It is most frequently translated in the Western media as “truce,” which typically connotes a bilateral agreement to end hostilities. The hudna, by contrast, is explicitly unilateral. Another common translation is “cease-fire,” whose original meaning is simply a military command to stop shooting. This term is somewhat more appropriate, since the hudna is an order from the central leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to cease all attacks for three months. However, the problem with this translation is that since World War I, “cease-fire” has come to mean an agreement between two sides to stop fighting so that a permanent treaty can be negotiated, such as the armistice that paved the way for the comprehensive Treaty of Versailles. Typically, the way modern cease-fires work is that an outside agent, such as the United Nations Security Council, works to persuade both sides in a conflict to halt their military operations as soon as possible. The cease-fire does not address the underlying grievances and long-term consequences of the war, nor does it put an end to the state of war; it merely forces the sides to put an end to the combat so that they can enter into negotiations without having to worry about their troops being killed. For example, during the Six-Day War, the Security Council merely sought to persuade Israel and the Arab states to halt their fighting, passing several terse resolutions to that effect, and not until five months later did it work out the more comprehensive Resolution 242, which aimed to find a more permanent solution to the conflict. On the other hand, the Hamas–Islamic Jihad hudna, as we have seen, was not meant as a step toward a lasting peace, contrary to the common misconception that it was meant as a means of facilitating the road map. Therefore, I shall simply use the term hudna.

It is worthwhile to contrast the Hamas–Islamic Jihad hudna with a similar document: the 1994 cease-fire (in the original sense of the term) of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In December 1993, the British and Irish governments issued a joint statement, the Downing Street Declaration, that they were committed to negotiating a peaceful settlement concerning the future status of Northern Ireland. In order to ensure that its political wing, the Sinn Fein party, would be represented in the talks, the IRA announced a cease-fire on August 31, 1994. The IRA’s leaders had to take great pains not to be conciliatory, since admitting that past military actions were morally wrong would greatly alienate the organization’s members. (Indeed, one splinter group, the so-called Real IRA, has to this day refused to accept the cease-fire.) Consequently, the authors of the cease-fire declaration praised the “courage, determination, and sacrifice” of the IRA’s members and pointedly stated that “others, not least the British government, have a duty to face up to their responsibilities.” Nevertheless, they declared that adopting a cease-fire would be the appropriate reaction to “an opportunity to secure a just and lasting settlement,” and emphasized that “a solution will only be found as a result of inclusive negotiations.”5 In other words, they renounced future violence in favor of peace talks but managed to save face by not admitting guilt for past actions. Indeed, as mentioned above, a cease-fire does not have to address matters of blame; that can be left to a permanent treaty. Since the IRA cease-fire on the whole held up (except for the activities of the Real IRA), it could serve as a model for a true cease-fire by the Palestinian militant groups.

However, as we have seen, the hudna declaration makes no mention of any hope for a negotiated settlement or a renunciation of future violence. The only statement of the long-term purpose of the document is a clause in the preamble that asserts “the legitimate right to resist the occupation as a strategic option until the end of the Zionist occupation of our homeland and until we achieve all our national rights.” Unlike the IRA cease-fire, which commends the group’s past military actions but declares that their time is past, the Hamas–Islamic Jihad document treats military action as part of the future, since it will continue to be the appropriate measure until victory is attained. (We should not forget the scope of this aspiration: in the language of the terrorist groups, the “occupied homeland” is all of Israel, not just the West Bank and Gaza.) The reason for the lack of reference to a permanent peace is simple: the groups have explicitly stated their opposition, based on religious reasons, to a permanent peace settlement with Israel. In an interview in early 1998, Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said, “It is permitted in Islam to make a temporary truce, or hudna, with the enemy, for a limited period of time. But it is prohibited in Islam to make a permanent reconciliation with the enemy.”6 Mahmoud Abbas may well have had this policy in mind when he began to urge Hamas and Islamic Jihad to accept a hudna. We must therefore try to understand the religious significance of the term.

In Islam, the original, most famous hudna was the treaty of Al Hudaybiyah, which Mohammed signed with the Quraysh tribe in 628. In preparation for making Mecca, which was already a major spiritual center because of its Kabah meteorite, into a Muslim city, Mohammed brought over a thousand followers to the city for the haj pilgrimage. The hostile Quraysh, who controlled the region, sent troops out to attack them, but the Muslims managed to reach shelter at the plain of Hudaybiyah, which lay within the “demilitarized zone” surrounding the city. There Mohammed signed a treaty with the Quraysh whereby the Muslims agreed to withdraw to Medina in return for the right to enter Mecca unarmed the following year; the treaty also established a ten-year peace between the Muslims and the Quraysh. (Many of Mohammed’s followers criticized the deal for being too conciliatory, but their protests went unheeded.) However, two years later, a Quraysh-affiliated tribe attacked one of the tribes that was allied with Mohammed, and he responded by leading an army of ten thousand toward Mecca, where the Quraysh surrendered without a fight. Thereafter, the city became the center of the Muslim world. The Al Hudaybiyah incident is seen as a major victory in Islam, and the sura of the Koran that celebrates it is known as Al Fath, or “The Victory.”7

For some Muslim groups, Mohammed’s hudna at Hudaybiyah had set an important precedent: pacts with non-Muslim enemies are acceptable and must be obeyed, but they can only be temporary military truces, not permanent peace agreements. Professor Majid Khadduri, an expert on the role of Islam in international relations, writes, “The Islamic state...sought to establish Islam as the dominant reigning ideology over the entire world. It refused to recognize the coexistence of non-Muslim communities, except perhaps as subordinate entities, because by its very nature a universal state tolerates the existence of no state other than itself.”8 Consequently, according to this view, the only permissible form of peace agreement is a temporary one, since a permanent, full peace would constitute recognition of a non-Muslim state. Of course, most Muslims do not accept this doctrine of unceasing war; indeed, it was not originally part of Islam. Religious historian Karen Armstrong notes that the rapid Arab military campaigns of the mid-seventh century were motivated by money and power, not by religion; only after the Muslims had established empires was a religious significance attached to these wars.9 Nevertheless, what is relevant is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad do hold the belief described by Khadduri, at least as far as Israel is concerned; they have always refused to accept any permanent settlement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist. The hudna has not changed this view. When the hudna was established, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, quickly pointed out: “this doesn’t mean that Hamas has recognized Israel...Israel is a temporary phenomenon and it will have to go.”10

The Al Hudaybiyah treaty figured prominently in Yasser Arafat’s controversial 1994 speech in Johannesburg, in which he promised a continued jihad to win Jerusalem as a purely Muslim capital. He compared the Oslo Accords, which he had signed eight months earlier, to Mohammed’s hudna: “This agreement, I am not considering it more than the agreement which had been signed between our prophet Mohammed and [Quraysh], and you remember the Caliph Omar had refused this agreement and [considered] it a despicable truce. But Mohammed had accepted it and we are accepting now this peace offer. But to continue our way to Jerusalem, to the first shrine together and not alone.”11 The speech sparked an immediate uproar. Many took it to mean that Arafat did not intend to abide by the Oslo accords, alleging that Mohammed had used the hudna with the Quraysh to build up his forces and then deliberately violated it by conquering Mecca. On the other hand, Muslim tradition holds that the Quraysh’s attack on Mohammed’s ally rendered the treaty null and void. In an interview on Israeli radio, advisor Ahmad al-Tibi sought to justify Arafat’s remarks: “Arafat said...that if one side violates the agreement, the other side can violate it, as happened in the agreement between [Mohammed] and the Quraysh...It was the Quraysh tribe that violated the agreement, as every elementary school student knows.”12

I have seen little evidence for the claim that Mohammed was responsible for the demise of the Al Hudaybiyah treaty. In any event, since the exact details of what took place in 630 are less relevant than how they are understood in Islam, we may accept al-Tibi’s version of the narrative. However, Arafat’s speech sheds a troubling light on the purpose of a hudna. We must keep in mind the importance that the breakdown of the Al Hudaybiyah treaty has in Islam: it led to the conquest of Mecca, one of Mohammed’s greatest victories. In citing this event in the middle of a speech about “the jihad to liberate Jerusalem, your first shrine,” Arafat implied an obvious parallel. Just as Al Hudaybiyah allowed Mohammed to take Mecca, so too would Oslo allow the Palestinians to take Jerusalem, as soon as Israel violated it—which he believed to be inevitable. For Arafat, then, one makes a hudna with the hope that the enemy will violate it so as to justify a powerful retaliation. Hamas and Islamic Jihad appear to hold the same opinion with regard to their hudna. As we have seen, the text is written so that the groups can easily accuse Israel of noncompliance, since full compliance is all but impossible. Moreover, statements by the groups’ leadership show that they eagerly awaited the opportunity to invoke the ultimatum clause. For example, one Hamas official, Ismail Haniyeh, said right after the hudna was announced, “I’m sure Israel will not give this hudna a chance to succeed.”13

In August, the house of cards finally fell when a suicide bomber killed twenty people, including six children, on a bus in Jerusalem. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack while simultaneously saying that it would abide by the hudna—a peculiar juxtaposition, to say the least. Two days later, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired six missiles at the car of Ismail Abu Shanab, a top Hamas leader in Gaza, killing him and two bodyguards. Hamas and Islamic Jihad replied by issuing statements calling off the hudna and declaring, in the words of the Hamas statement, “Jihad until victory or martyrdom.”14 From what we have seen about the nature of the hudna, it is easy to understand what happened. Having decided that it had regrouped sufficiently, Hamas resumed its terrorism against Israel, and then used the response as a pretext for officially calling off the hudna that it had just violated by launching a suicide attack. The lesson to be learned is that a mere hudna is simply not enough, for Hamas and Islamic Jihad have made it clear that they will never accept Israel’s right to exist. The only acceptable solution is total dismantlement of the terrorist groups. Then, and only then, will a just and lasting peace be possible.

Adam Levine, Harvard Class of 2005, is from Scarsdale, New York.

1. “Words of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad: ‘Just, Lasting and Comprehensive Peace.’” New York Times, June 30, 2003. All quotations from the hudna declaration come from here.
2. Abu Ramadan, Saud. “Hamas Gives Peace a Chance.” United Press International (July 10, 2003).
3. Abu Toameh, Khaled, and Herb Keinon. “Hamas, Jihad, Fatah announce conditional truce. Israel dismisses cease-fire as ‘all talk.’” Jerusalem Post (June 30, 2003).
4. “A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” U.S. Department of State. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2003/20062.htm.
5. Associated Press. “Cease-Fire in Northern Ireland.” New York Times (September 1, 1994).
6. Abu Toameh, Khalid. “The Sheikh’s Progress.” The Jerusalem Report (July 20, 1998): p. 26.
7. Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. “Introduction to Surah 48—Al Fath.” The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, 9th ed. Beltsville, MD: Amana, 1997: 1326.
8. Khadduri, Majid. The Law of War and Peace in Islam. London: Luzac, 1940. Cited in Sharon, Moshe. “Behind the PLO boss’s words.” Jerusalem Post (May 27, 1994).
9. Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: The Modern Library, 2000: 29-30.
10. Abu Toameh and Keinon.
11. “Arafat’s Johannesburg Speech.” Information Regarding Israel’s Safety. http://www.iris.org.il/quotes/joburg.htm.
12. Tuchfeld, Mikhael. “Telephone interview in Hebrew with Ahmad al-Tibi.” Transcript from BBC Summary of World Broadcasts (May 24, 1994).
13. Abu Toameh and Keinon.
14. Bennet, James. “2 Militant Groups Abandon Promise of Mideast Truce.” New York Times (August 22, 2003).

This Issue

HIR Notebook
Compiled by the editors

What Many Liberals Can't See Arthur Hertzberg

The Costs of U.S. Aid to Israel
Daniel Feith

Reviving Religious Zionism
Daniel Shoag

Hudna-winked: How Hamas Fooled the Media
Adam Levine

HIR Book Review - Illegal Construction: a Legal Deconstruction
Max Davis

Security Fences Make Good Neighbors
Eric Trager

The State of the Jewish State
An Interview with Efraim Karsh