The principal object of the various ceasefires mounted by the various Palestinian factions from 2001 until 2003 was essentially to test Israeli readiness to engage in a serious political process that would lead to a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders. Unilateral attempts at military de-escalation had not been attempted earlier as the outset of Oslo period had been characterised by Fateh attempting to capitalise on its monopoly of power and control of security. Oslo effectively licensed the transformation of the militia of a single faction (Fateh) into the official organs of the Palestinian National Authority police and national security in order to control and ultimately destroy its political rivals. Well before the time of the last Intifada, this mandate for Fateh to suppress its rivals had eroded as a result of a shift of public support in the Palestinian Territories towards the Islamists.
There were other considerations that prompted the ceasefire efforts of 2001-03. The civilian population of both communities was periodically experiencing Intifada fatigue and morale dips in response to what has been called 'Fourth Generation' warfare. Fourth Generation warfare really is no more than the modern evolution of insurgency, but has been well summarised as:
...widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace [becoming] blurred to the vanishing point...nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts...[and] distinctions between "civilian" and "military" disappearing; actions [occurring] concurrently throughout all participants' depth, including their society as a cultural, [and] not just a physical, entity.
(William S. Lind et al. 'The changing face of war: into the fourth generation' Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989).
Fluid asymmetrical insurgency of this type, which was incorporated into some aspects of the second Palestinian Intifada, is aimed at undermining the psychological steadfastness of the opponent. Its deliberately uneven tempo also affords the irregular forces more flexibility to test the political waters without experiencing adverse political consequences from their supporters. A change in an already uneven tempo does not imply concession or defeat.
For the EU and for some within the US Administration, de-escalation of violence was one of Senator Mitchell's three key linked components towards a resolution of the conflict, which he summarised as "reduce violence, build confidence and begin talking". In this aspect the Mitchell Report ran concurrently with Islamic norms of conflict resolution. For the Islamists a Hudna (a period during which military activities are suspended in order to allow a peace process to proceed) held a particular attraction because there was no implied return to the status quo ante: that is, in their perception it carried no implied return to the Oslo approach by which Hamas and other groups were to be dismantled or destroyed. It also opened political space vis-à-vis Fateh. Here were Islamists taking their own independent political initiative.
Israel throughout the period of attempted ceasefires remained ambivalent on whether or not to encourage the Hudna until after August 2003, when the Hudna declared on 29 June ended with a bus bomb in Jerusalem and the subsequent targeted killing of Hamas leader abu-Shanab in Gaza. Israel then pressed for Hamas to be internationally proscribed and isolated. Although proscription by the European Union, a move that divided Europeans, carried little practical import for Hamas in terms of finance or activities, it further isolated and marginalised them from the political process. More seriously from Hamas' perspective it gave the 'green light' to Israel to try to assassinate their leadership.
Before the EU proscription, some Israeli officials and military officers (e.g. Efraim Halevy, a security adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister) had argued the benefit of co-opting Hamas and the Islamists into the political framework, because they had seen the consequences of the Islamists' exclusion on the efforts of Colin Powell, George Tenet and Anthony Zinni to try to resurrect the earlier security commitments by Fateh at the outset of the Oslo era. They also understood that inclusion of Hamas was necessary to bring an end to conflict.
Other Israeli officials however argued that Hamas was not capable of transformation into a political party by virtue of its nature as an Islamist movement. This hostility to the religious aspect, in contrast to the more secular Fateh, also coloured the attitude of the US and some Europeans. Some secular Europeans too had misgivings about the wisdom of accommodating religious movements. These misgivings persisted despite the evidence of polls which showed that Islamism was no longer optional to the equation, no marginal phenomenon; Hamas was mainstream. Perhaps of greater weight for some Israelis however was the value of harnessing the 'war on terror' to portray Israel as engaging in a wider conflict with Islamic extremism rather than a political struggle over disputed territory.
Similar disquiets also affected the Egyptian mediation efforts. For Egypt, the baggage of their own repression of the Muslim Brotherhood weighed heavily. They were concerned that tacit endorsement and any legitimising of Palestinian Islamists might be seized on by their own Islamists and exploited. Consequently, their approach was circumscribed by the framework of the domestic political objective of containment of Egyptian Islamism as well as their approach towards Israel and the Palestinians.
The result of this accumulated ambivalence was that the unilateral efforts of four de-escalation initiatives (2 June–9 Aug 2001, 16 December–17 January 2002, 19 September–21 October 2002 and 29 June–19 August 2003) in which Hamas participated provoked no efforts at establishing a framework of reciprocity that was detailed and understood by both parties. Israeli security forces continued to kill Palestinian civilians, make incursions into Palestinian areas and demolish houses during the periods of significant de-escalation by the Palestinians. In the last Hudna in June 2003, the number of civilian Palestinian deaths caused by Israeli military forces did reduce significantly. However arrests of Palestinians rose fourfold, and there were continued targeted killings.