Hamas Too Stands to Win From a Cease-fire With Israel

Hamas has gotten prisoners released, forced a cease-fire on Israel and leads the armed struggle, while Mahmoud Abbas isn’t even picking up any crumbs.

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Palestinian militants of Iz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas' armed wing, Gaza Strip, in 2014.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Now that Israel has accepted Egypt’s cease-fire proposal, Operation Protective Edge will go to the accountants to tally up the profits and losses. But it’s clear that if a cease-fire happens, both Hamas and Israel will gain.

Gazans will be able to go back to their wretched lives and rebuild the hundreds of homes that were destroyed, mourn their dead and hope they’ll soon receive their salaries. Israelis will be able to forget about their bomb shelters for a while and go back to worrying about making ends meet.

Of course, each side will stick to its victory narrative while admitting the limits of its strength. Israel and Hamas, which got into a war they never wanted, are hugging each other in a cease-fire based on the “quiet for quiet” concept. This embrace is conditional; if Hamas’ military wing doesn’t agree to it, the cease-fire will be a theoretical exercise in a strategy of mini-conflicts.

In any case, the cease-fire deal proves that it’s not enough to carry a big stick and that the mutual deterrence after Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense can’t last when one side thinks the other has crossed a red line. And without a clear definition of what constitutes a red line, and with each side having its own interpretation of that, mutual deterrence has a limited lifespan.

In the profit-and-loss account, the very existence of mutual deterrence — however long it lasts — is a fair accomplishment for Hamas. Despite the unified Palestinian leadership that’s supposed to lead a recognized Palestinian state, one organization is being deterred, and one group within it is signing security agreements.

As a result of this twisted structure, Hamas, until the reconciliation with Fatah, was seen as a separate authority that couldn’t influence the Palestinian Authority. Now Hamas looks like the PA’s military wing. In this way, it resembles Hezbollah, which thanks to its military might and private conflict with Israel can dictate Lebanon’s domestic and foreign policy.

Hamas may now benefit from a new status in the Arab world. Despite the harsh criticism by Arab, especially Egyptian, politicians and intellectuals, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi couldn’t turn his back on events in Gaza. The fear was that the body count would ignite city squares in Egypt, forcing Sissi to take a position that could be interpreted as pro-Hamas. That would thwart the war strategy against the Muslim Brotherhood that brought him to power.

But this fear wasn’t the only thing that pushed Sissi to his cease-fire initiative. The agreement gave him a chance to revive Egypt’s status as the sole caretaker of the Palestinian problem, to be an address for the U.S. administration, to keep Egypt’s loathed rival Qatar, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood, from being a mediator, and to demonstrate his diplomatic prowess.

Here, Sissi found a supportive partner in the form of Israel, whose military cooperation with Egypt is a strategic asset far more significant than the cease-fire with Hamas. The question now is the price Egypt will be asked to pay to stabilize the cease-fire. Hamas demands that the Rafah border crossing be opened and that the Israeli and Egyptian blockades of Gaza be lifted. It also wants international guarantees that the cease-fire will be kept.

Put otherwise, Hamas is striving for diplomatic achievements that will overshadow both types of criticism from within: the criticism of the war by the people and the criticism of the cease-fire by other Palestinian groups and even the military wing’s spokesmen.

The Egyptian proposal doesn’t mention the opening of the Rafah crossing or guarantees. The crossing is a political and military asset that Egypt seeks to manage based on its own interests, without making it a hostage for an Israel-Hamas cease-fire.

Although Egypt hasn’t signed the border-crossing agreement, it has conditioned the opening of crossings on Palestinian and international supervision. And it’s now demanding that there be PA observers on the Palestinian side, even if Hamas operatives are among them.

The cease-fire could also put Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in an embarrassing position. The very leader who’s keeping up the security coordination with Israel and hasn’t given up on the peace process finds himself, not for the first time, in a humiliating position of inferiority.

In the Palestinian view, Hamas has once again twisted Israel’s arm. Hamas got the prisoners released, forced a cease-fire on Israel and bears the burden of the armed struggle, while Abbas isn’t even picking up any crumbs.

Despite the intra-Palestinian reconciliation, Hamas and the other groups permanently threaten any peace process that Abbas might want to initiate. Israel would rather forge a temporary agreement with a group that demands no political or territorial price rather than with a leadership with whom any agreement means a political war in Israel.

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