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For Netanyahu, Any Concession to Hamas That Keeps Palestinians Divided Is Worth It

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A Palestinian man shows his money after receiving his salary in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018.
A Palestinian man shows his money after receiving his salary in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018.Credit: AFP

The suitcases of Qatari cash entering the Gaza Strip and the extra hours of electricity Gaza residents received thanks to the increased fuel supply sparked a small buying spree and celebratory media headlines this weekend. They also fed the delusion that the weekly demonstrations along the Israeli border had ended and life would now return to its difficult normal.

Update: Six killed, including Hamas military commander, in Israeli raid in Gaza

Qatar budgeted $90 million for Gaza, thereby forcing the hands of Egypt and Israel, which consider it a “terror-supporting state.” But $90 million is trivial compared to what Gaza needs.

A World Bank study published in March founded that half of Gazans live in poverty. Annual per capita income is $1,820, down from about $2,500 in 1994. Foreign investment is negligible. Only international aid – including that provided by UNRWA, whose budget Washington has cut – keeps the economy alive.

Unemployment is over 50 percent, and even higher among young people, who constitute most of the population. Moreover, just repairing the damage done by Israel’s 2014 war with Gaza is expected to cost $1.7 billion.

These grim statistics can’t be changed by Qatar’s limited donation. Gazans need a comprehensive plan including a port, a stable electricity grid, regular fuel supplies, a sewage treatment system, potable water, agricultural development and investment in manufacturing.

If Israel wants a long-term deal with Gaza, it will have to let in building materials, open its border crossings to imports and exports and let Gazans work in Israel. The diplomatic significance of such a deal isn’t just official recognition of Gaza’s Hamas government – something Israel has already effectively granted by holding Hamas responsible for everything done in Gaza. It also means ending the blockade that has lasted more than 11 years and adopting a new strategy toward Hamas.

With help from the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Israel has succeeded in almost completely severing Gaza from the West Bank, both politically and economically. Both wanted Hamas weakened or even destroyed, and relied on economic sanctions to achieve this goal. Israel’s blockade and Abbas’ cessation of payments to 40,000 Gazan civil servants were supposed to make Hamas capitulate.

But then the Gazan public entered the picture. Many Gazans responded to Hamas’ call for regular, lengthy, violent demonstrations along the Israeli border; others got swept up unintentionally. These demonstrations have lasted for seven months.

Egypt, which was trying to broker both a PA-Hamas reconciliation and a Hamas-Israel deal, found itself conducting ad hoc negotiations to restore quiet, without which the latter deal would be impossible.

Abbas quickly discovered that his “partnership” with Israel in pressuring Hamas was showing cracks. Israel wanted quiet now, even at the price of a significant retreat from the economic strangulation policy. And Egypt felt the same.

Both countries therefore had to swallow the Qatari frog, even though Qatar is officially under Saudi, Bahraini, Emirati and Egyptian sanctions. Abbas was left alone in the war against Hamas, and last week he capitulated to Egypt’s pressure to give the cease-fire deal a chance.

Hamas seemingly can present the calm and the payment of salaries as a diplomatic achievement. But it has no way to leverage this achievement as long as Abbas sticks to his conditions for internal reconciliation. These include subordinating Hamas’ arms to the PA, establishing a unified security service and restoring control of tax collection and the judicial system in Gaza to the PA.

As long as Egypt and Israel conditioned the reopening of the border crossings on PA control of those crossings, Abbas’ conditions carried real weight. But both countries have now retreated from this demand. Thus, these conditions now are only capable of stymieing the internal reconciliation.

Hamas can boast of its achievement to Gazan residents, but since it doesn’t stand for elections, its ability to rule Gaza actually depends on Israel and Egypt. So for now, the main beneficiary of recent developments is Gaza’s public more than its leadership.

But Hamas has become a player in Israeli politics, which may be one of its greatest sources of power. Cabinet ministers are openly squabbling over Gaza policy and it will be an issue in Israel’s next election.

As long as Hamas controls Gaza, it can perpetuate the Strip’s separation from the PA and thereby thwart efforts to establish a unified Palestinian representative that could negotiate with Jerusalem and Washington.

That’s a great service to Israel’s government, which fears Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” or any other diplomatic move that would require it to pay a territorial price.

Thus in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s view, any concession to Hamas that preserves the Palestinian schism is worth it.

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