Ego Clashes and Counter-terrorism: Behind the Scenes of Israel-Gaza Talks

After a year of contacts mediated by Egypt and Qatar, defense officials assess that the political leadership is concerned about other matters, as hostilities threaten to break out

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A soldier puts out a fire caused by a balloon launched from Gaza, in southern Israel, August 19, 2020.
A soldier puts out a fire caused by a balloon launched from Gaza, in southern Israel, August 19, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

Israel and Hamas have been passing along messages for the past few weeks, all with the same content: A return to rounds of fighting is imminent.

The organization is signaling this to mediators Qatar and Egypt by using balloons to set Israeli fields on fire near the border and firing of rockets at communities in the south – while in response, Israel attacks Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip to show that it will not let this pass in silence.

Defense officials understand that the mediators can prevent the military escalation, but estimate that they will not receive much help from the political leadership, which is more concerned by the coronavirus and accompanying economic crisis. The military is thus the main actor dealing with the issue.

This week, a delegation of senior Egyptian intelligence officials arrived in Gaza and spoke with the leadership of Hamas after speaking to officials in Israel. At the end of the talks, the delegation did not make it clear whether understandings had been reached between the two sides, or an agreement to continue the routine of the past few months. Senior defense officials said they still think that if they are given the appropriate tools, calm can return to the Gaza border area without a descent into fighting.

The process of reaching an arrangement between Israel and Hamas, according to a defense official involved in the mediation efforts, has been going on for over year, led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, along with the military’s Southern Command, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the military General Staff and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Even though the political leadership is not devoting much time to the tensions with Gaza, all the parties are interested in making their voices heard in order to receive credit if things simmer down, added the official.

“The talks deal with civilian matters, humanitarian aid and infrastructure,” said the defense official. “If once Ben Shabbat decided everything and made decisions with defense officials and the prime minister, today everyone wants to express a position. The chief of staff and the head of the Southern Command appointed Brig. Gen. (res.) Asher Ben Lulu as their representative; Ashkenazi wants to speak with Qatar and Egypt after the Foreign Ministry was not in the picture; Gantz announced he will appoint a person on his behalf and that COGAT will be subordinate to him; COGAT is trying to preserve the status of the unit – everyone is trying to establish their power, and it is creating quite a lot of problems that could well lead Hamas to the conclusion that there is no one clear address. The recent events show that Hamas is not interested in the power struggles in Israel and demands the continuation of the arrangements.”

Contacts between Gaza and Israel have continued throughout the year, defense officials say. One senior official told Haaretz that at the request of the prime minister and head of the National Security Council, there are no direct talks or meetings between Israel and Hamas, but that indirect channels using mediators have developed over the years, ranging from phone calls to representatives of Hamas and Israel meeting in a neutral location, usually the headquarters of Egyptian intelligence in Cairo: “It is conducted so that the Israeli representatives sit in one room and the Hamas representatives sit in the other, and the mediators pass between the rooms and prevent direct contact.”

It was recently reported that the head of the military’s Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, traveled to Qatar for a meeting on the issue, and other defense officials – from the military, the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad, and the National Security Council – also travel for similar meetings as needed. According to the senior official, Ben Shabbat “approves the delegation representatives, the location of the talks and the room for maneuver in negotiations. In many cases, when understandings about an arrangement or ceasefire have begun to take shape, they leave the room to call Ben Shabbat. Sometimes he arrives himself.”

With Egyptian approval, Israel received the right to veto the presence of representatives Hamas wanted to bring to the meetings, with Ben Shabbat getting a list of participants. “Hamas doesn’t like it, but they understand that it’s a condition Israel won’t give up,” according to the defense source.”There were cases in which Yahya Sinwar would arrive for meetings, but I cannot say if he was going to the headquarters or sitting with his people in a hotel next to it.” That said, the source added, the Egyptians know to set boundaries when demands become petty.

Recent months have seen reports multiply about Qatar’s growing involvement in the mediation meetings, but the senior official says it is “a secondary player, a kind of financial collateral for the understandings that are reached.” According to the source, “Qatar is there mainly because of its desire to grow closer to Egypt. Gaza doesn’t interest them. They aren’t part of the talks and discussions, either. I also can’t say they are even going to Egypt. They mostly give approval for economic assistance from afar.”

Surprises remain

In a memorial for David Ben-Gurion that was held in November of 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayhau referred to a round of hostilities that ended a day earlier. “There is more than meets the eye in Israel’s security,” he said, depicting Hamas as defeated. “Our enemies begged for a ceasefire, and they know why.” Now, however, the senior defense official says that “in contrast with what they are trying to display in Israel, Hamas is not sitting in Cairo and begging for a ceasefire. They know that they will pay a heavy price and that every day of fighting takes many assets away from them, but they know it hurts us and that it will ultimately end in talks with them.”

In general, he added, “there is a tendency in Israel, after combat, to create an image of victory. Those who know about these things are aware that it doesn’t have winners and losers. It’s not a war between two countries. In the end, two sides with unequal power sit down, and each one wants to go back to routine life.”

But despite the increase in talks, the defense official says there are more than a few “surprises” indicating that the two sides do not know each other as well as they thought. The most conspicuous of these, he says, was the military’s Operation Black Belt in November of 2019, when Israel fought Islamic Jihad following the killing of Abu al-Ata. “Black Belt taught a lesson to a lot of people,” he says. “No one really Hamas wouldn’t join the fighting, and anyone saying otherwise is lying. In one of the security discussions before the operation, there was a young officer who claimed the response could be directed such that Hamas wouldn’t join the fighting and leave Jihad to take a beating. Senior officers and defense officials laughed at him.”

In the end, the air force did in fact attack Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza for two days without Hamas joining in. “The chief of staff didn’t think Hamas would remain on the fence, either,” the source added. “At the end of the operation everyone published reports saying it was planned, but everyone who was in the know was aware that neither Kochavi nor anyone else thought that’s how it would be.”

Following the killing of nine members of the al-Sawarkah family in Rafah during the operation, he says, “Hamas passed along a message to Israel that the incident brought it to the very edge of its restraint and that another incident would bring them into the circle of combat. But in Black Belt a conversation was conducted with Hamas through mediators on phone and video. Delegations didn’t even go out.”

Another defense source says that the mediation talks, while they deal with civilian matters, also led in the past two years to the prevention of security incidents that could have led to escalation. “In the past, when an ambulance would get close to the fence,” a large number of troops would be summoned “and more than once they shot in the air or toward the ambulance,” he said. “Today, using mediation channels, we know very quickly about this ambulance and we know what its purpose is.”

He added that more dangerous incidents have been prevented: “Sometime defense officials know about a cell or terrorist wanting to go to the fence, or identify planning for a shooting attack or activity that would lead to a security escalation if it is carried out. Now Israel knows how to inform Gaza that we know it’s happening and they should try to stop it before the IDF responds.”

Another defense official emphasized that as part of talks toward an arrangement, there is great cooperation between different defense bodies participating in the process.

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