On May 15, 2002, Yasir Arafat addressed the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramalla. The occasion was the 54th anniversary of the Nakba (“the disaster” of Palestine, i.e. the establishment of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948). In his speech Arafat referred to the suicide attacks against Israeli citizens, stating that these attacks “do not serve our cause, but rather subject us to angry criticism on the part of the international community”. Arafat called upon the Council to deal with this problem (which has aroused serious discussions among Palestinians and Arabs in general) from the vantage point of the “Hudaybiyya Conciliation Accord, out of our concern for the patriotic and national interest of our [Palestinian] people and [Arab] nation, in order to strengthen worldwide solidarity with the Palestinian people and its cause”.

What is behind this reference to Hudaybiyya? It conveys the following twin messages.

  1. “The Hudaybiyya Conciliation Accord” was an agreement which the Prophet Muhammad signed in the year 628 A.D. with the infidels of his tribe, the Kuraysh. He did so upon their refusal to join the community of Islam, when he realized that he could not defeat them militarily. Two years later, having consolidated his power, he attacked Holy Mecca, slaughtered the men of his own tribe and torched all the symbols of their heathen culture.
  2. Islam regards the actions of the prophet as religiously sanctioned models for the behavior of the faithful. In fact, the authorized collections (Hadith) of Muhammad’s acts and pronouncements are among the important sources for the Islamic authorities of every generation in deciding questions of religious law. Thus, the prophet’s way of treating his agreement with the Kuraysh is perceived as the ideal procedure for Muslims when dealing with non-believers: When Muslims cannot impose their will for expanding the rule of Islam by force, they are permitted to sign temporary agreements with the non-believers. Such agreements are to be kept until Allah grants a sufficient increase in Muslim power. At that point the faithful are allowed (or obliged) to break the agreements and to impose Islamic terms on the infidels. Why else would Allah have granted them the power to prevail?

In referring to Hudaybiyya, Arafat meant exactly this: Any agreement with Israel is — in his eyes — no more than a Hudaybiyya Conciliation Accord. This is eminently clear to anyone who reads the Islamic sources, preferably in Arabic. (Internet sites in English tend to portray a rather conciliatory picture of Islam, for Western consumption, by rephrasing Islamic messages.)

The proof for this is inherent in the second message of the quotation from Arafat’s speech. Suicide attacks at this juncture are not condemned as vile inhuman acts but are held in abeyance because they are presently incapable of advancing Palestinian goals. At present, the Palestinian cause can best be served by avoiding international condemnation and by promoting the encouragement and sympathy of the world community.

What does Arafat mean? That suicide attacks are evil and should be removed from now on from the arsenal of legitimate weapons in the struggle against Israel? Not at all. If anything, recruitment and training of shahids is accelerating. What he advocates for the near term is a change in the modus operandi. Does he promise not to use suicide attacks again? By no means. Does his most recent call to desist from attacks upon civilians remind us of his record of broken promises made to Rabin (1993), Netanyahu (1996) and in many public declarations between 1993 and 2000? They do indeed.

As a student of Arab politics and as a Zionist with personal past involvement with efforts to promote peace and understanding between Israelis and Arabs, I do indeed believe Arafat’s message: he does wish to come to an agreement with the Israelis, but, as he points out to his followers, any agreement with non-Muslims, such as a commitment to stop suicide attacks, is simply a modern version of Hudaybiyya. As such, in accordance with Islamic principles which form the basis of the political culture in the Arab sphere, such a commitment may (or must) be broken at the right time. Clearly, before long, when in Arafat’s judgment suicide attacks will again be helpful to the Palestinian cause, he will once again call upon his followers to go out and sacrifice their lives in Israel’s streets (‘millions of shahids marching to Jerusalem’).

Great tragedies have occurred in international affairs when governments try to understand potential enemies in terms of their own political culture. The events of September 11 can serve as one recent example. Israeli ignorance of Islamic traditions and Arab culture have brought about many serious political and military setbacks, from the surprise attack which started the Yom Kippur War (October 6, 1973) to our lack of realism all through the Oslo process, 1993-2000. We shall continue to disregard the Islamic tradition only on pain of more naive dreams, by Israeli and Western leaders, dreams which are totally detached from the Middle Eastern reality, a reality which is becoming increasingly colored by the Islamic brush.

Bar-Ilan University, Israel
Phone: +972 54 778 908

Department of Arabic and research associate of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies