Analysis

Both Israel and Hamas Seek Long-term Gaza Deal. But That's Not Enough

Israeli military chief finds surprising ally on easing of Gaza blockade, as threats on northern front take priority

Iron Dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel, as seen from the city of Ashkelon, Israel, November 13, 2019.
Khalil Hamra,AP

Haaretz reported Monday about an opportunity – emerging in the Gaza Strip – that has been discerned by the IDF. Israel’s assassination of senior Islamic Jihad operative Baha Abu al-Ata has removed the principal threat to a long-term agreement between Israel and Hamas. It is the army’s view that the Islamist organization ruling the Strip is concerned mainly about the intolerable living conditions there, and is thus aiming for agreements, not violent confrontations, with Israel. In light of this opportunity, the IDF has recommended that the government consider the reintroduction of far-reaching economic-relief measures for Gaza. This iron must be struck while it’s still hot, the General Staff believes.

In rather typical Gaza fashion, a rocket was fired that very evening into Israel. Then on Tuesday evening, two more rockets were fired, the Iron Dome system was activated to intercept them, and tens of thousands of Negev residents rushed to their protected areas and bomb shelters. A video clip of trembling, crying children in Ashkelon, taken by their mother during the air-raid alert, quickly went viral.

For his part, Netanyahu did not take the trouble to acknowledge the situation in any particular way; perhaps he was too busy monitoring the arrival of supporters at the solidarity rally for him in Tel Aviv. In a kind of Pavlovian response, the Israel Air Force bombed a few empty Hamas positions and someone briefed correspondents about the “quality targets” that were struck, supposedly attesting to a conceptual change.

In practice, the usual zigzagging continued. For years, Israel attacked Hamas positions even in response to Islamic Jihad attacks, in order to emphasize the responsibility of the Hamas authorities there for everything that happens in its territory. During the two days of escalation on November 13 and 14, only Islamic Jihad sites were targeted. Now it’s back to the old routine.

According to Israeli intelligence, the rockets this week were fired by colleagues of the late Baha Abu al-Ata – Islamic Jihad personnel who are furious at the Hamas regime over preemptive arrests of its operatives, in an attempt to enforce the cease-fire with Israel. Despite these incidents, the monthly distribution of Qatari funds for the needy in Gaza began on Wednesday, in cooperation with the United Nations, which pays residents small fees for relief work. Today, for the third week in a row, Hamas has prohibited the Friday demonstrations along the fence in Gaza, despite the symbolic significance of November 29 (the anniversary of the passing of the UN Partition Plan for Palestine).

Military Intelligence remains convinced that Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, wants a long-term cease-fire. It would be contingent on the launching of various infrastructure projects: the improved supply of electricity to the Strip, the building of a hospital at the Erez checkpoint, the upgrading of the water and sewage infrastructures and initial preparations for the revitalization of the industrial zone at the Karni checkpoint. Israel would try to move these projects forward, but then the next hurdle will loom: negotiations over the fate of the two Israeli citizens and the two bodies of IDF soldiers being held in the Gaza Strip. Here, the government – any government – will find it difficult to maneuver. This problem cannot be postponed indefinitely, but there is no concrete public support for an agreement that would include the mass release of Palestinian security prisoners under these circumstances.

A surprising partner has joined IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi in favoring economic relief for Gazans – the new defense minister. Naftali Bennett, who in the past year assailed Netanyahu at every opportunity for displaying a conciliatory and weak approach to Hamas, shares the army’s view that civil relief measures are necessary to achieve a long-term agreement with Hamas. He, too, like Kochavi, wants to ensure quiet in the south, so as to be able to divert attention and resources to the north, where he perceives there to be a greater threat.

In contrast to the army, in this context, Bennett does not use the word hasdara (arrangement) explicitly, to avoid giving the impression – which is well-grounded – that what is going on are effectively indirect negotiations with Hamas. He has added two more nuances as well: Israel needs to bolster its deterrence against Gaza by means of more massive attacks in response to rocket fire, and it also should go back to the policy of holding on to terrorists’ bodies, in the hope (which in practice has proved faint) of creating mounting pressure ahead of any future talks on the return of the Israeli captives and MIAs.

The defense minister’s statements, which referred only to the need for stronger responses vis-a-vis Gaza, were made Wednesday morning, the day after the rockets were fired into Israel. In contrast to the hours immediately following those attacks, now it was apparently urgent for Netanyahu to issue an immediate response. Within less than 10 minutes, “political sources” announced that the directive about the bodies was issued by Netanyahu, in response to the request of the family of Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose remains are held in Gaza.

In case anyone had doubts, Bennett’s appointment as defense minister does not signal the start of a beautiful friendship between him and the prime minister. It’s the result of a temporary alliance of interests, and for the moment continues to serve them both. If a third election within a year is held next March, this duo could end up working together until next June, if not longer, until a new government is formed.