According to diplomatic sources in Israel, Egypt seeks to promote reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, expand the Palestinian Authority’s role in the Gaza Strip, initiate economic relief and arrange for the gradual dismantling of the Hamas military wing. Qatar is proposing that an unaffiliated council of experts manage the Gaza Strip, a halt to Hamas arming itself with offensive weapons and getting international organizations involved to monitor the process. Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations’ special coordinator for the Mideast Peace Process, is trying to organize a new regional forum that will include Israel, Egypt, the PA and the UN to create and operate a long-term aid mechanism for the Strip.
From Israel’s perspective, the gaps with Hamas are too great to bridge at the moment. Israel is concerned that a “Hezbollah model” could emerge in the Gaza Strip, in which Hamas keeps its weapons while the PA takes responsibility for managing civilian issues. It is also skeptical about international monitoring mechanisms to prevent arms smuggling, which failed in an agreement brokered by the Bush administration after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip and the organization’s current strongman, gave a rare interview Wednesday to the Al Jazeera network. Sinwar, who spent more than 20 years in Israeli prisons for murdering Palestinians who cooperated with Israel, was singing a new tune. He announced that Hamas had reached an understanding with Egypt that the demonstrations along the border with Israel would continue but would not deteriorate into a military confrontation. He then praised the “popular nonviolent struggle,” a new position coming from a man who for years headed Hamas’ military wing, which fired rockets at and dug tunnels into Israeli territory.
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The Palestinian definitions of “peaceful resistance” are very flexible and very far from the Israeli understanding of the term. During the demonstrations, Hamas made sophisticated and manipulative use of Gaza’s desperate masses. If Sinwar had sent only women and children bearing flowers to the fence, likely none of them would have been shot by Israeli army snipers. In reality, many of the violent demonstrations were led by activists in Hamas’ military wing, wearing civilian clothing, who spearheaded the efforts to breach the fence. In several instances explosive devices were planted, hand grenades were thrown and soldiers were fired upon.
Sinwar himself admitted in the interview that “fighters from all the Palestinian factions” participated in the demonstrations. He was interviewed, incidentally, with a Palestinian flag in the background and not a Hamas flag. This appears to attest to the organization’s aspirations to lead the entire Palestinian people. In the demonstrations along the fence as well, Palestinian flags were waved, not Hamas flags.
Over the past two months the Israeli security establishment has been waging an intense battle to achieve the objectives set for it by the politicians without dragging the country and the entire region into war. Members of the army’s general staff say that these have been the most volatile weeks in a decade. This effort integrated military and intelligence operations, diplomatic moves, psychological warfare and media measures.
On the northern front, the army acted to undermine Iran’s military buildup in Syria and to thwart the Iranian attempt to carry out a retaliatory attack. This confrontation in the north has been managed to date with impressive success. In the Gaza Strip, the army had prepared to block a mass breach of the border fence by Hamas-organized demonstrations that reached their peak this past Monday. The breach was indeed thwarted, but at a high cost in Palestinian lives and diplomatic damage.
In both arenas, the tactical achievements of the past few days have not solved the strategic question marks. War did not break out, but its hasn’t dissipated. May’s fear is still valid. It might yet slip into June.
During the first half of the month there was a dizzying pace of military events. The high alert in the north and in the territories forced the army to completely stop its regular training this week. Continued elevated readiness over time, along with the high attention it demands from the country’s leaders, will affect the army’s ongoing conduct.
Israel’s big failure is not on the PR front, but in the government’s unreasonable delay in authorizing steps to bring some economic relief to Gaza despite the warnings of all the professionals. The situation in Gaza is expected to worsen during the summer. Israel applauds U.S. President Donald Trump the more he cracks down on the Iranians and the Palestinians. In July, America will halt economic aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. There is truth to the claim that the agency has become a mechanism for perpetuating Palestinian victimhood while over the past decade the Middle East has produced millions of more refugees. But the funding cuts to the body will directly harm more than a million Gazans who need its regular food deliveries and it may also disrupt the agency’s education system, without which there is no one to keep Gaza’s children in school.
After Monday’s bloodbath, the demonstrations receded and in the subsequent days almost no Palestinians came to the fence. The army is preparing for demonstrations Friday in which Hamas is expected to show some restraint. But Hamas will not stop the demonstrations altogether because it sees a winning formula for exerting pressure on Israel.
The group has indeed racked up some achievements in the international arena, including renewed tensions between Israel and Turkey, the condemnations from Europe and the recall of the South African ambassador. In return for halting the friction on the border, Hamas wants to achieve even more. Egypt’s apparent willingness to increase the days the Rafah crossing is open to 10 days a month is a welcome start, but the organization is looking for more, and hopes to get it by continuing the pressure on Israel.
Meanwhile, Ramadan began this week. On Monday afternoon, at the Qalandiyah crossing, the commander of the Binyamin Brigade (Ramallah), Col. Yuval Guez, skillfully handled the Palestinian demonstration marking Nakba Day. In contrast to what I had seen two hours earlier in the Gaza Strip, one could see that the Palestinian side was observing defined rules of conflict and sought to avoid casualties.
On Friday, through the same crossing, the army will secure the entry of tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank for prayers in the mosques in Jerusalem’s Old City. Here, too, caution will be needed. On the one hand, there are the consequences of the carnage in Gaza and the fact that over the last nine years, Palestinians were killed in demonstrations and clashes in the West Bank during Ramadan. On the other hand, it is understood that undermining the Palestinians’ freedom of worship could worsen the security relationship with the PA.