Gaza remains highly flammable, despite reports of Israel’s ‘new understanding with Hamas’

May 22, 2019 by Yaakov Lappin - JNS.org
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According to a report by Israel’s Channel 12 that was aired on Tuesday evening, Israel and Hamas have reached informal new understandings, designed to allow calm to prevail in the next six months.

Thousands of Palestinians attend a rally in Gaza City celebrating the 31st anniversary of Hamas on Dec. 16, 2018. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

The reported understandings, mediated by Egypt and by the U.N.’s special coordinator to the region, Nickolay Mladenov, will see Hamas cease violent border incidents and keep Gazans 300 meters back from the border fence. Hamas also reportedly agreed to end nightly clashes and weekly flotillas designed to challenge Israel’s naval security restrictions. Israel, for its part, has agreed to expand Gaza’s fishing zone to 15 nautical miles, increase U.N. employment initiatives in Gaza, increase the traffic of civilian goods entering the Gaza Strip and open up negotiations for solutions to its electricity, health, and economic troubles.

At a later stage, Channel 12 said, indirect talks will begin for the return of the remains of two fallen Israel Defense Soldiers killed in action during the 2014 Gaza conflict, and two Israeli civilians who are being held captive by Hamas.

The Prime Minister’s Office later responded by denying that any new agreements had been reached, asserting instead that “efforts to retrieve the captives and the missing are continuously ongoing.”

When assessing such reports, question marks, rather than exclamation marks, are required, particularly when it comes to Gaza, whose terror factions have initiated eight rounds of conflict, involving heavy rocket barrages on Israeli cities and waves of Israeli Air Force retaliatory strikes in the past year alone.

After the dust settled from such escalations, Hamas remained in a severe state of strategic distress, finding itself increasingly isolated in the region with an ever-shrinking budget and a world that is less tolerant to terrorism, making its fundraising abroad harder to achieve.

Hamas has yet to resolve its paradox of being a regime, responsible for nearly 2 million Gazans, and a terror organization simultaneously. It wishes to be both and constantly tries to juggle these identities. Hamas’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, has taken calculated risks to try and force the international community to step in and make up for the money lost after his bitter domestic rival, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, cut the P.A.’s Gaza budget by around 30 percent.

Hamas is desperate for someone else to pay for Gaza’s civilian needs so that it can invest its own money in weapons, rocket factories, combat tunnels and a terrorist army. It’s not that Hamas can’t raise its own money; in 2018, it made roughly half-a-billion dollars just from taxes on goods coming into Gaza, like gas and cigarettes, via the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. But this money, like the huge quantities of cement that has entered Gaza, goes mostly to Hamas’s military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, leaving Gaza’s civilians with no economic future or growth engine in sight.

This has made Gazans increasingly desperate and more willing to protest against their regime. Hamas’s top fear is losing control over its population as a result of the economic and humanitarian situation. To alleviate the pressure, it organizes weekly border riots and attempts to infiltrate Israel, thereby seeking to release frustrations.

But what Hamas ultimately wants at this time is for cash to start flowing into Gaza, so that the risk of a domestic revolt subsides. Egypt, for its part, has an interest in keeping Gaza quiet, despite the fact that it is far from a fan of the idea of a Muslim Brotherhood regime on its northern border—the same Muslim Brotherhood that Egypt has been battling daily inside its own borders.

In its rounds of combat with Israel, Hamas has lost many high-value assets and targets, and the latest escalation also saw the IAF destroy the homes of Hamas field commanders that were used to store weapons.

Sinwar has sufficient tactical pragmatism to conclude that he has nothing to gain and much to lose from an all-out war with Israel at this time; he is, therefore, open to Egypt’s mediation efforts and attempts to resuscitate Gaza’s economy.

Growing threat from Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Yaakov Lappin/JNS

Even if Hamas is able to stick to the new reported agreements—something that is far from assured—the problem is that Gaza has at least two heads, not one. The second largest terror faction, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is fully loyal to Iran and funded by it, has its own agenda. Unlike Hamas, PIJ has no paradox to solve and no responsibility for the welfare of Gazans.

It was PIJ that initiated the last round of fighting on May 4 by conducting a sniper attack on Israel Defense Forces’ personnel. PIJ is under direct Iranian influence, and Tehran steers it to ignite conflict in Gaza. PIJ is also competing with Hamas for the leadership of the radical camp and seeks to prove that it’s the real leader of the long-term war against Israel.

In order for the agreement (if it indeed has been reached) to hold up, Hamas and Egypt will need to find ways of restraining PIJ. Sinwar wields great power in Gaza, but at the start of May, he notably backed down from confronting PIJ and went along with the escalation it sparked.

Israel, for its part, has made many attempts to avoid a full-scale war in Gaza, due to the few good options that face it following any ground operation.

Nevertheless, the Jewish state is unwilling to continue to accept a situation in which its civilians are at the whims of indiscriminate rocket-launching cells terrorizing its neighbourhoods. The coming days and weeks will, therefore, put claims of a new understanding to the only test that really matters: results on the ground.

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