The political storm that swept across the country this week obscured the huge dramas that are continuing to roll across the Middle East. The Arab Spring refuses to end. This week, too, the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad continued to kill civilians and opposition activists who are trying to drive out the regime. In Egypt, preparations for the presidential election, which will take place on May 23 and 24 (with a possible run-off in June) are at their height. At the same time, many fear that the Supreme Military Council will try to postpone the elections at the last minute. Amid all the unrest, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are emerging as islands of political and security stability. The question, of course, is how long that situation will last.
Next week, on May 14, the Palestinians will mark Nakba Day, recalling what they refer to as the "catastrophe" of 1948: Israel's establishment and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land. The day's events will dovetail with the ongoing hunger strike of about 2,000 security prisoners in Israeli jails - which could make for a volatile mix. Still, this week the leaders of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority worked hard to ensure that the demonstrations will be confined to the Palestinian cities of the West Bank and will not assume a violent character. Even the tournament that Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestinian Football Association, is planning for Nakba Day will be held in West Bank cities.
"My legacy? I have one thing, security," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday in an interview with Reuters. "Ask anyone if we are going to the third intifada. They will say no, they want peace. That has never happened before. People realized that through peaceful means we can achieve our goals."
In the past, declarations of that sort drew harsh condemnations from Hamas, as did comments related to cooperation with Israel and to measures taken by the PA against armed and wanted Palestinians. But at a time when the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal, is making it clear that the organization will focus on nonviolent public activities, it's hard to see how the Islamic movement can criticize Abbas, even implicitly.
Moreover, below the public and media radar, a special unit has been operating in Gaza to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel, as reported yesterday in Haaretz. It may be difficult to grasp this, but Hamas - a terrorist organization that advocates jihad against Israel - has in fact established a security force whose aim is to arrest members of squads belonging to other Palestinian organizations. These include Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and others who may try to fire missiles at the "Zionist enemy."
Not exactly a honeymoon
The unit was set up and is commanded by Hamas' interior minister, Fathi Hamad. Hamad, who was known to hold extreme views with regard to Israel, gave the unit the name Kawat Dabat al-Midan - meaning "the force in control on the ground." It has about 300 soldiers, tasked with operating, as the unit describes itself, "24 hours a day, in every place in Gaza, especially in areas close to the border with Israel."
According to a source in Hamas, the force is authorized to open fire at militants who resist arrest or try to shoot at its members. If arrested, the members of a launch squad can expect to serve at least a few months in prison. The launchers, rockets and mortars that it seizes are confiscated and become the property of Hamas. Arrests thus far have been made of activists from smaller Palestinian organizations but also from Islamic Jihad and the PRC, the leading opposition groups in the Strip.
Even though Hamas continues to build itself up militarily, acquiring long-range rockets and improved antitank missiles, its relations with Israel have never looked better. Strangely, close cooperation exists between the sides on the ground, even in the absence of direct contact. While this is not the kind of security coordination that exists between the Israel Defense Forces and the PA in the West Bank, the very existence of this new unit shows which way the wind is blowing in Hamas: The movement clearly wants to maintain security quiet on the border with Israel and consolidate its rule in the Gaza Strip.
The new unit barely interfered with Islamic Jihad and the PRC in the last round of violence between Gaza and Israel, however. One reason is that the force will not act in cases in which Israel attacks first. (Israel's assassination of Zuhair al-Qaisi, from the PRC, in March, had sparked that last round of fighting.) A cynical observer who is identified with Fatah told Haaretz this week that the IDF should consider co-opting the Hamas force to its Iron Dome anti-missile units.
While Israel is highly suspicious of the force and disparages its capabilities, local sources admit that Hamas is working hard to preserve quiet. The relationship may not be a honeymoon, but there is definitely mutual acceptance by each side of the other's presence.
The prevailing feeling in the Gaza Strip is that Hamas is rapidly morphing into a second PA. Even the head of its military wing, Ahmed Jabari - the embodiment of resistance to Israel, who remained in hiding for years - seems to have been thrilled by his travels abroad during the negotiations on the Gilad Shalit deal. Of late he hasn't been seen much in the training camps of Rafah and Khan Yunis; he was spotted, though, in five-star hotels in Cairo.
Even though Israel continues to restrict the passage of people from Gaza to the West Bank, coordination exists in humanitarian cases between the Hamas Ministry of Health and the Israeli military liaison directorate. There is no direct communication - the PA's Ministry of Civil Affairs acts as a middleman - but it's clear to everyone involved that they are all talking to "the enemy."
Checks and balances
Another sign of changing times in Gaza can be seen in the bustling activity at the Kerem Shalom crossing. This week the terminal was packed with trucks, most of them carrying goods from Israel to the Strip, some from Gaza earmarked for overseas (Israel recently agreed to allow small quantities of agricultural produce from there to pass through its territory for export ). Although the scale of commerce and of movement of people between Gaza and the rest of the world remains far lower than it was during the period of PA rule in the Strip, the fact is that Gaza is no longer under siege. Meanwhile, Egypt has opened the Rafah land crossing for Gazans traveling to Egypt, and it's used by about 1,200 people a day.
In the past few months, the Kerem Shalom crossing has become part of the system of checks and balances that Hamas is utilizing to manage the Gaza economy. When the Islamic group wanted in the past to encourage the import of goods through the smuggling tunnels - its most important source of revenue - it organized security disturbances to provoke closure of the crossing. On other occasions, and as has been the case quite often recently, Hamas levied taxes on all goods entering Kerem Shalom. In the past few months, the organization has taxed 17 products, in part to help fill its dwindling coffers, but also to encourage smuggling through the tunnels, where even heavier taxes are levied.
The Gaza government's financial straits have also spurred new taxes: on motorcycles, cars and even on mule-drawn carts passing through the border crossing. The Hamas government also changed its policy regarding issuance of drivers' licenses in Gaza, making them subject to payment of taxes. In addition, medicines sent to Gaza by the PA at no cost are then sold to residents by Hamas.
Chaos in Sinai
It's possible that the desire of the Hamas leadership for quiet is what drove the rival organizations to perpetrate acts of terror from Sinai. The movement of gunmen from Gaza to Sinai and back is facilitated by the extensive tunnel network. The situation is compounded by the chaotic situation in the peninsula. The Egyptian army is trying to assert its presence along the border with Israel, opposite Gaza, as well as in Sharm el-Sheikh and along the coastline. However, the vast area of central Sinai is looming as a growing threat both to Israel and to Egyptian sovereignty.
The number of warnings about potential terrorist attacks being launched from Sinai against Israeli targets now equals the number of Gaza-based alerts. In the meantime, Egyptian forces along the border are being attacked almost daily by armed Bedouin. Some of the latter belong to smuggling squads, others to Global Jihad. At the end of last week, six Egyptian soldiers were kidnapped by such Bedouins, who demanded the release of their comrades from prison. The demand was not met, but the six soldiers were eventually let go.
In another incident, which took place close to the border, armed fighters stormed Egyptian outposts, and while the troops were fighting off some of the Bedouin attackers, others in that group threw packages, apparently containing drugs, across the border. The armed men also opened fire at Israeli soldiers who approached. At this point, some jeeps arrived on the Israeli side, picked up the packages and drove off under the cover of battle.
Nevertheless, it would be farfetched to describe the Egyptian soldiers, who are stationed not far from Kerem Shalom, as being on high alert. They looked bored, and even seemed amused to see visitors this week on the Israeli side of the border. They waved in greeting at the Israeli guests, and went about their business. The soldiers belong to Egypt's Armed Security unit, which guards the border, but most of them were not armed.
The Egyptian army sends its "lower-quality" troops to this most dangerous arena - most are illiterate and some are former criminals. Every few hundred meters, two or three of them can be seen sitting under a protected position which faces west: not toward Israel but toward Sinai. They are concerned about attacks by Bedouin. There is no reason to envy these troops, or the officer in charge of them. He is a brigadier general who is in direct contact with his counterparts on the Israeli side. In clashes with armed Bedouin smugglers, he has often found himself fighting shoulder to shoulder with Israeli officers. Owing to the great danger he is in, the Egyptian officer can only move about surrounded by armed bodyguards.
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