Analysis

Even After Weekend Violence, Israel and Hamas Moving Toward Long-term Gaza Calm

New Defense Minister Bennett is working like someone who has come for a limited time and is planning to use every minute of it

Mourners carry the body of Palestinian teenager Fahd al-Astal, who was killed near the border fence with Israel, during his funeral in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 30, 2019.
SAID KHATIB/AFP

Israeli and Hamas authorities are still inclined toward reaching an arrangement. Even after a pretty violent weekend on the Gaza border – a Palestinian teenager killed by army fire at a demonstration near the fence, rockets intercepted in the western Negev skies, a false alarm in Ashkelon – Israel and Hamas continue to hold indirect discussions on a long-term agreement. Hamas spokesmen are already referring to it as a tahadiyeh (long-term calm), rather than just a cease-fire. The Israel Defense Forces are even speaking of a “broad tahadiyeh.”

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Things could still get fouled up, as has happened plenty of times in the past. A lot depends on local developments. The killing of the teenager on Friday, contrary to the IDF’s declared goal to finish the weekend with no deaths, led as expected to rocket fire, apparently by Islamic Jihad activists. There are enough factions in the Strip that are seeking to renew the fire and Hamas doesn’t always go out of its way to restrain them.

Nevertheless, there are several signs that the goal continues to be an arrangement:

  • The construction of a field hospital near the Erez crossing. Hamas is advancing the project, which is led by an American nonprofit that had previously operated a similar facility on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights. Hamas is ignoring the claims in the territories that this is actually an American-Israeli intelligence-gathering scheme. Leila Khaled of the Popular Front, who Israelis may remember for her role in airplane hijackings, warned recently against the initiative, as has the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry in the West Bank. But Hamas is insisting on moving forward, presumably because the thousands of wounded from the fence demonstrations have simply overwhelmed Gaza’s health system.
     
  • In a ceremony inaugurating another hospital, in Rafah, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke about the need to carry two flags, the flag of resistance and the flag of development. Haniyeh is scheduled to leave Monday for Cairo for talks with Egyptian intelligence about a possible arrangement. Meanwhile, Hamas is being relatively restrained in its use of force; first by not firing rockets at Israel during the fierce exchanges with Islamic Jihad that began November 12, and later by canceling the fence demonstrations for the third weekend in a row. (The teenager was killed during a spontaneous demonstration.)
     
  • A letter written by Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi to IDF commanders, excerpted in the Hebrew Haaretz last week, describes Hamas several times as a stabilizing factor in Gaza and hints that Israel must help it strengthen the Strip’s governability. An arrangement is mentioned a few times as an Israeli goal, with Islamic Jihad portrayed as a disruptive force. 
     
  • Both the IDF brass and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett have expressed support for advancing infrastructure projects in Gaza as part of the agreement process. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz has resumed talking about building an artificial island off the Gaza coast. At the same time, the heads of the regional councils in the Gaza border area presented plans for establishing industrial zones along the border to Yedioth Ahronoth. The plan is for Palestinians from the Strip to work there, similar to plans being discussed by the security establishment.

Bennett worries IDF brass  

Bennett is working like someone who has come to the Defense Ministry for a limited time and is planning to utilize every minute of it. Here is a partial list of announcements and decisions he’s made since assuming the post on November 12: An announcement on intensifying the policy of responding to aggression from Gaza and Syria; setting a goal of removing all of Iran’s military presence from Syria; halting the return of terrorists’ bodies to the Palestinians; calling on computer experts to help Israel create an alternative online connection for Iran after the regime there cut the population off from the internet during the recent riots; and on Sunday he instructed the coordinator of government activity in the territories to advance construction plans for settlers in the wholesale market district in Hebron.

For more than 20 years the settlers have been pressuring the authorities to let them build in the market area. This is part of a methodical process of distancing Palestinians from the neighborhoods near their homes. These moves have had the state’s assistance since the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 2014 and the series of Palestinian terror attacks that followed. Bennett is also seeking to adjust the status quo at the cave by installing an elevator for the disabled, even though the Hebron municipality objects.

A ball of fire is seen following an Israel airstrike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip early on November 27, 2019.
SAID KHATIB/AFP

The atmosphere has been pretty calm in the West Bank recently, and the IDF has issues with Bennett’s moves in Hebron, which are perceived as aggressively promoting settler interests. Hebron has provided reasons to ignite the territories in the past. But as long as there are no confrontations with numerous casualties, it’s doubtful that the tension surrounding the new construction there will necessarily spread to other parts of the West Bank.

Jordan vents anger at Israel

Last week the Jordanian military conducted a wide-ranging exercise, part of which addressed the scenario of an invasion of Jordan from the west, to be foiled by blowing up the Jordan River bridges. Representatives of the palace watched the exercise, some of which was also broadcast on television.

Which mysterious, unnamed country is threatening the kingdom from the west? The exercise meshes with the clear anti-Israel rhetoric being heard recently in the Jordanian media. King Abdullah is furious with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ever since he declared Israel’s plan to annex the Jordan Valley before the elections in September.

The Jordanians also conveyed the message by insisting on retaking the lands at Naharayim and near Moshav Tzofar in the Arava, 25 years after signing the peace treaty with Israel. Efforts to try to reduce the tension include talk of a possible visit to Jordan by President Reuven Rivlin.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Naftali Bennett visit an army base in the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019.
ATEF SAFADI/AFP

But these tensions also have domestic reasons. Abdullah is contending with pressures that are almost impossible to juggle. Jordan is still hosting more than half a million Syrian refugees, there is little financial help from Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States and Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria is not realizing Jordan’s hope of renewing the trade route with Turkey through its territory.

Abdullah has also been forced to back down following mass demonstrations against tax hikes and an intense teachers strike.

Raising the tension with Israel, therefore, is a bone being thrown to the opposition. Israel has actually received messages to this effect from the palace: Our anger with you is real, but some of the public steps we’re taking stem from domestic constraints.