Analysis

Gaza Leader Says 'Finger on the Trigger,' but Hamas and Israel Are Nearing Agreement

Yahya Sinwar's talks with other Palestinian factions indicate that the sides are preparing for a long-term cease-fire after the turmoil of Israel's election

Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar chant slogans as he surrounded by protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, April 20, 2018.
Khalil Hamra / AP

The meeting between the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, and the leaders of other Palestinian factions a few days before Israel’s April 9 election has provided a large number of details about the understandings that are taking shape between Hamas and Israel with the mediation of Egyptian intelligence.

A review of Sinwar’s full remarks shows that he is preparing the ground in Gaza for a long-term cease-fire with Israel in exchange for a considerable improvement in the economic situation in Gaza. The senior Hamas official’s justifications for such an accord in his talks with the other factions actually show how far the talks have gone.

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Sinwar was careful to emphasize that Hamas has not violated its principles in its indirect negotiations with Israel: The negotiations have never been direct, he noted, and do not include recognition of Israel. Any agreement is not diplomatic, meaning that it is unrelated to the Trump administration’s peace plan. It also has nothing to do with the issue of missing or captured Israelis, and is not a substitute for internal Palestinian reconciliation efforts between the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah and Hamas.

>> Read more: Israel goes easy on Hamas, harder on Abbas | Analysis ■ Israel's concessions to Hamas are just the prelude

According to Sinwar, Hamas is not also not forgoing its “weapon of resistance,” meaning, it is ruling out demands that Gaza Strip be demilitarized. Sinwar, the former head of Hamas’ military wing, emphasized that his Islamic movement’s “finger remains on the trigger”, meaning that Hamas is prepared for the possibility of an outbreak of military hostilities.

A man displays fish for sale at the seaport of Gaza City, after Israel expanded fishing zone for Palestinians April 2, 2019.
\ SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS

He also enumerated the easing of restrictions that Palestinians in his coastal enclave would get in exchange for long-term quiet. Gaza’s fishing zone would be extended to 15 nautical miles off shore (which would be the largest that it has been for about two decades). Israel’s ban on shipments of about a third of the dual-use material that it bars from entering the Strip, over concern that it would be used for military rather than civilian purposes, would be dropped. Trade via the Gaza border crossings with Israel would also be considerably eased.

In addition, Israel would approve several initiatives from Gulf state countries designed to improve the situation in Gaza: Financial aid from Qatar would double to $30 million a month until the end of the year; 40,000 jobs would be created in the Strip by year-end; a water-purification facility would be built with Saudi financing; and Gaza’s Shifa Hospital would be expanded, with funding from Kuwait. Other steps, evidently later on, would include increasing the fuel supply to the Strip, installing another electricity transmission line and expanding the use of solar energy. This would be subject to a commitment by Hamas to refrain from any violent acts against Israel from Gaza.

Prison hunger strike

In another development, Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails reported on Monday that they had halted the hunger strike that they began on April 7, two days before the Israeli election. The prisoners said they had reached a compromise over Israel’s use of technology to jam the use of cell phones by prisoners in the security wings in Israeli jails. The prisoners reported that Israel had agreed to the installation of public telephones in the wings, to speak to their relatives, which is to be carried out under the supervision of Israeli security agencies. According to the reports, Israel agreed to remove the cell phone jammers on the condition that cell phones be removed from the security wings.

According to Hamas, about 400 people took part in the hunger strike, which attracted limited interest from the Palestinian media. It also appears that in actuality, no more than 100 prisoners took part in the strike and that some of them didn’t fully participate.

 Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, attends the event marking the 31st anniversary of the establishment of Hamas at Al Katiba Square in Gaza City, Gaza on December 16, 2018.
Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency /

Sinwar’s comments, the negotiations to end the hunger strike and the state of affairs on the Israel-Gaza border all attest that the parties are serious about achieving long-term calm. In clashes in the latest Friday weekly protests on the border, one Palestinian teenager was killed by Israeli fire and dozens of protesters were injured, but the intensity of the violence was less than in the past. Night-time protests along the border have also died down in the last couple of weeks, as has the launch of incendiary balloons and kites from the Strip into Israel.

Presumably these matters are related, at least in part, to the results of the Israeli election. Hamas officials understand that political circumstances have changed. Before the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu simply wanted to get the election over in peace and wished to ensure that no military confrontation broke out until the vote. Now, having won, he’s less subject to pressure.

Most Israelis support his policies, including those relating to Gaza, and his wiggle room is greater. This state of affairs, in addition to serious economic distress in the Strip, are pushing Hamas to come to an agreement. Yet as always, things could go awry over a local incident, or a conflict over substance in the accords.

A Palestinian uses a slingshot during a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 12, 2019. -
AFP

Gaza and the new Israeli government

The state of affairs in Gaza is also indirectly affecting the composition of the next Israeli government. Political commentators say Avigdor Lieberman is the key. He left on a post-election vacation in Vienna and is being coy about his intentions. The five seats won by the party he heads, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the assumption that he’s the only one not in Netanyahu’s pocket, bolster his clout in coalition negotiations. That is ostensibly paving his way back to the post of defense minister, but at the same time, it has nurtured hope (probably vain) in opposition ranks about a national unity government, if Lieberman demands one.

>> Read more: Israel's shallow election campaign ended as it deserved: A farce | Analysis 

In fact, Lieberman didn’t really enjoy his first stint at the Defense Ministry. It was relatively hard work and there were tensions with the top army brass, mainly in the period prior to his resignation in November. And the work didn’t translate into public popularity. Secondly, his public clash with Netanyahu erupted over the outgoing defense minister’s opposition to the Netanyahu government’s conciliatory policy towards Gaza.

Israeli soldiers cast their votes at the Erez army base in the south of Israel near the border with the Gaza strip on April 7, 2019,
AFP

Lieberman also based part of his campaign on outflanking the government on the right, and claiming the only way to solve the Strip’s problems was to defeat Hamas. Prior to that, in the course of his term as defense minister, he was attacked for failing to fulfill his promise to stage an attack on Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas political chief. If Netanyahu really is aiming at coming to an indirect agreement with Hamas, Lieberman may have difficulty carrying it out. Lieberman remains a candidate as the next defense minister, but the portfolio may also wind up remaining in the prime minister’s own hands.

Trumps’ ‘deal of the century’

On Monday, the Washington Post published more details on the “deal of the century” that the U.S. administration is proposing to the Palestinians and Israelis. Barring further delay, the Trump plan will be presented in May, or maybe June. According to the Post, the American president isn’t proposing a sovereign Palestinian state, but rather simply practical ways to improve the Palestinians’ lot. The report only bolsters suspicions in Ramallah that Washington and Jerusalem are coordinating efforts. From the Palestinians’ perspective, the proposal is a non-starter that doesn’t even warrant serious discussion.

To some Israeli security veterans, the information published so far about the Trump plan is reminiscent of another plan, long forgotten, proposed by the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s. That plan involved $1.5 billion and a five-year plan to improve the living conditions in the territories, including upgrading the water system. The Americans managed to give the Palestinians about a quarter-billion dollars before abandoning the plan because of opposition by exiled leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The rest is history. Two years later, in December 1987, the first intifada broke out.