With Truce, Israel Talks to Hamas and Islamic Jihad

The significance of the cease-fire is that Israel has recognized militant groups as an inseparable part of the Palestinian polity.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar, appearing for the first time since the start of the conflict, speaks during a rally by Palestinians in Gaza on Tuesday.
Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar, appearing for the first time since the start of the conflict, speaks during a rally by Palestinians in Gaza on Tuesday. Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The cease-fire agreement doesn’t give Hamas any victory photos or immediate gains. Though Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah and Hamas representative Izzat al-Rishq both heaped praise yesterday on the Palestinians’ heroism and their ability to stand fast against the Israeli army, Shalah listed the war’s achievements as “keeping the Palestinian problem from being forgotten,” “thwarting the Zionist enemy’s initiatives” and “destroying his deterrent capabilities.”

It’s hard to find any significant differences between the current agreement and Egypt’s original proposal, unless there’s a secret annex that hasn’t been published. Opening Gaza’s border crossings, allowing humanitarian aid and construction materials to enter and expanding the coastal fishing zone to six miles were already agreed on a month ago. There’s no commitment yet to building a port and airport in Gaza, and even opening the Gaza-Egypt border crossing at Rafah was left to separate talks between the Palestinians and the Egyptians. At this stage, the agreement largely replicates the understandings reached after the last Gaza operation in 2012. Thus ostensibly, Israel can say it achieved its goals: quiet in exchange for quiet and destroying the tunnels.

But this is just a preliminary agreement. The important agreement will come in another month, when both sides return to Cairo to negotiate over core issues like a port and airport, prisoner releases and Gaza’s reconstruction. Over the coming month, the cease-fire’s stability will be tested, and that is the innovation in yesterday’s agreement: The truce is of unlimited duration. Thus for the first time, Israel has agreed to a confidence-building process with the Palestinian government to which Hamas and Islamic Jihad are also parties.

The negotiations won’t be direct, but this is clearly a pan-Palestinian agreement with Israel. Thus Israel has not only recognized the Palestinian unity government, but also acknowledged that Gaza and the West Bank can no longer be separated. Without these two facts, neither yesterday’s deal nor those to follow would have any practical meaning. Effectively, Israel has recognized Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups as an inseparable part of the Palestinian polity with which it will also have to conduct broader diplomatic negotiations in the future.

This is also the significance of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ question: “What next? Are we fated to have another war in another year or two?” He answered vaguely, saying the Palestinian leadership would have to discuss this issue; the “surprise” he promised to unveil earlier this week vanished. There was no mention of diplomatic moves like joining the International Criminal Court or demanding a UN deadline for ending the occupation, though these might come later. Abbas apparently anticipates a different development: a situation in which all Palestinian organizations would become political parties and promise to lay down their arms if a peace agreement is signed.

The loss of much of its arsenal and the difficulty of rebuilding it poses a dilemma for Hamas, a senior Palestinian official told Haaretz. With the smuggling tunnels closed and Egypt guarding the Sinai border, “Hamas will have to decide whether to turn its face toward politics or continue the armed struggle, which hasn’t brought it victory.”

Nor is rehabilitating Gaza its only concern: Hamas must also rehabilitate its relationship with Egypt, which has become the sole guarantor of the cease-fire agreement, and is Gaza’s link to the outside world.

Abbas’ “what now” question also relates to the future of the PA and the Palestinian unity government. Will Hamas seek to hold elections as scheduled, meaning late this year or early next year, or will it fear a significant loss of support due to the death and destruction? Will it be able to veto Abbas’ decisions by threatening military action, or will the cease-fire agreement preclude this option?

Another important question is whether the war will help restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

All the answers will depend first of all on the “confidence-building” period that began yesterday. The next stage will be the opening of negotiations on the core issues, which will not only require agreement on technical measures like monitoring and verification, but also a strategic decision by Israel on whether it is willing to start building the Palestinian state’s economic independence via a port and airport, and to view this not as an achievement for Hamas, but for the Palestinian government.

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