Meshal Gaining Strength at Expense of Targeted Gaza Leaders

The head of Hamas’ political bureau appears to be the last obstacle to a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, Cairo, April 4, 2013.
Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, Cairo, April 4, 2013.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Once again, the Middle East waits for Khaled Meshal.

The consent of the head of Hamas’ political bureau appears to be the last obstacle on the way to declaring a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip. The United States and Egypt are working to pressure Meshal by leaning on his host, Qatar, as are the Palestinian Authority and the smaller factions. It seems we’ve been here a few times during this past month-and-a-half.

The meeting between Meshal and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Doha last week was described as tense and difficult. Abbas, who wants to relieve the people of Gaza of their plight while also restoring some of the PA’s status in the Gaza Strip, is frustrated by the Hamas leader’s intransigence.

Israeli intelligence reports indicate that there is deep despair in Gaza. According to some estimates, it will take no less than 10 years to repair the damage caused by the Israeli attacks over the past seven weeks. There have also been complaints about Meshal from within Gaza, to the effect that refusing to approve a long-term truce last week led to the wave of assassinations of senior Hamas military figures. Those killings apparently left something of a vacuum in the military wing, whose functioning seems to have been impaired.

Moreover, because of the assassinations, Meshal’s position has been strengthened at the expense of the group’s military and political leaders in Gaza. He also has the advantage of being in close proximity to the financial spigot Qatar has promised to open to help rebuild the Gaza Strip.

The new formula being proposed by Egypt calls for the declaration of an indefinite cease-fire. Immediately thereafter, agreements would take effect that would be a variation of those reached after Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

The agreements are expected to call for a limited opening of the Rafah crossing into Egypt, eased conditions at the border crossings between Gaza and Israel, and a significant expansion of the fishing range off the Gaza coast. Israel has told Hamas via Egypt that it will not agree to any further talks in Cairo unless the rocket and mortar fire is fully halted.

Assuming that a cease-fire were to hold, further talks about additional issues are expected about a month after the cease-fire goes into effect. One of the central issues is a seaport, which Hamas insists Gaza must get and Israel refuses to consider. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand for the demilitarization of Gaza is expected to disappear.

It seems that Israel is willing to make do with agreements with Egypt about continuing to block the tunnels in Rafah, as a way of hampering Hamas’ ability to smuggle rockets into Gaza or resume domestic rocket production. If there were any Israeli ministers who imagined that Israel would strike a deal requiring the Palestinians to send a truckload of rockets out of Gaza for every truckload of cement that comes in, they would be well advised to think again. That’s not likely to happen, at least not in this round of talks.

Israeli politicians are already bracing themselves for disappointment with the emerging agreement, and their knives will be unsheathed shortly after the cease-fire goes into effect (assuming a deal is ultimately reached). Most of the criticism is being directed at Netanyahu, but there has also been a surge of complaints, mostly from the right, about the army’s performance and the General Staff’s unwillingness to recommend a sweeping ground operation to vanquish Hamas. Depending on the critic, this is attributed to a lack of creativity, a lack of vision or simple defeatism.

In choosing between a vision of decisive victory and ongoing low-key fighting that, if extended indefinitely, could come to be considered a war of attrition, the political and military leadership has clearly chosen the latter. Although Israel pays a price for this choice, it is nonetheless able to cope with it well, and better than Hamas. Despite the damage the conflict has caused to Israel’s economy, the fighting hasn’t paralyzed the country, at least not north of Ashdod. In addition, the rocket and mortar fire has not affected strategic infrastructure; aside from a brief forced stoppage, Ben-Gurion Airport continues to operate as usual.

The Achilles’ heel of this approach is Israel’s border zone with Gaza, where life has come to a standstill as barrages of Hamas’ simplest weapon, the mortar shell, has led more than half the area’s kibbutz residents to leave their homes, and where no one can fathom how school is supposed to open next week.

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