For the first time in months, the quiet in the Gaza Strip this weekend looked like the real thing. Egyptian pressure on both sides led to a significant reduction in violence along the border during the weekly March of Return demonstrations.
Many things could still go wrong, and some undoubtedly will. But for now, at least, the Egyptians have managed to move events in the right direction.
The gradual reduction in violence allows for measures to improve Gaza’s dire economy. Qatar has been recruited to pay the salaries of Gaza’s civil servants. Islamic Jihad is sitting on the fence – and not playing spoiler as it did a week earlier. It’s even possible that the Palestinian Authority will stop trying to thwart a deal in Gaza. All this explains the Israeli government’s willingness to continue a policy of restraint even though it might do damage politically.
The Egyptians took an unusual step this weekend. Egyptian intelligence officials, headed by a senior general, came to Gaza and patrolled the sites of the demonstrations. An Egyptian official also came to Israel.
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On Friday Hamas, under the guests’ watchful eyes, deployed its security forces a few hundred meters west of the border fence to prevent the demonstrators from getting near it. The Israel Defense Forces also evidently exercised greater restraint. Unusually for the past several months, no Palestinians were killed and only a handful were wounded by sniper fire, though dozens suffered from tear gas inhalation.
On Sunday, all the Palestinian factions are due to meet in Gaza to discuss the Egyptian proposals. Hamas’ demonstrated desire to reach an agreement may also be linked to the fact that Islamic Jihad challenged it by firing rockets and mortar shells at Israel a week ago, and afterward by holding demonstrations outside the homes of senior Hamas officials. If Hamas doesn’t seal a deal soon, it could lose control of events.
For now, Islamic Jihad isn’t openly opposing the emerging agreement. The organization that’s openly opposing any deal with Israel, even an indirect one, is the relatively small Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Arab media outlets have begun reporting details of the agreement, though Israel’s government has offered no information about it to its own citizens (and has even denied any involvement). The goal is a three-year cease-fire. The reduction in violence would enable more significant measures to improve Gaza’s economy, including expanding fishing zones, opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and allowing more Palestinians to enter Israel.
The Palestinians have once again raised an old idea – letting 5,000 Gazans work in Israeli communities near Gaza. This proposal was raised after the 2014 Gaza war, but was vehemently opposed by the Shin Bet security service for fear that it would be exploited to carry out terror attacks. Thus it’s hard to believe it will actually be implemented now, and certainly not in the agreement’s first stage.
Later on the deal also calls for large infrastructure projects like a port and airport, the news reports say.
These reports have upset the families of the two Israeli soldiers whose bodies are being held by Hamas. On Friday, Lt. Hadar Goldin’s parents met with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and released a statement that claimed to quote him. The IDF was forced to take the unusual step of issuing a semi-denial.
The family said the IDF opposes the deal. Eisenkot’s position is almost the diametric opposite. He considers an agreement desirable but thinks its final stage – large infrastructure projects – shouldn’t be implemented without resolving the problem of the soldiers’ bodies and the missing civilians held by Hamas.
Qatar has emerged as a key player because any deal depends on its agreement to finance civil servants’ salaries in Gaza and buy fuel for the territory for a substantial period of time. The Qataris may be hoping to reap an additional benefit from this.
For more than a year, Qatar has been under blockade by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Qatar’s assistance in Gaza may spur the United States and Europe to pressure the Saudis, who are already in deep trouble over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to resolve the quarrel that led them to impose the blockade.
The IDF has drawn three main conclusions from the events of the past weekend. First, when Hamas wants to, it can stop the violence. Second, Hamas indeed is interested in a deal right now. And third, there is now an opportunity to restore the situation along the Gaza border to what it was before March 30, when the March of Return demonstrations began.
From a military standpoint, even though residents of communities near Gaza feel that their security has been eroded, the army has basically fulfilled its mission. Masses of Palestinians didn’t succeed in breaking through the border fence, and no Israeli civilians were hurt due to the demonstrations. (One Israeli soldier, Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi, was killed by Palestinian sniper fire during the protests.)
But from a strategic standpoint, the outcome may well look very different. If Hamas achieves an agreement as a direct result of the diverse types of violence it has employed – from firing rockets to trying to send masses of Palestinians across the border – it will have significantly improved its position. Not only will the blockade of Gaza be eased, but Egypt, the United Nations, Qatar and effectively the entire international community will have begun treating it as a legitimate partner rather than demanding that anything done in Gaza be done via the Palestinian Authority.