Gaza Cease-fire: Egypt's the Big Winner, and It Will Come at a Price for Israel

Instead of deterrence, Israel and Hamas struck a balance of agreements. But Israel's dependence on Egypt will require it to contribute to Gaza's economy

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Smoke billowing from the Gaza Strip following an Israeli air strike, May 29, 2018.
Smoke billowing from the Gaza Strip following an Israeli air strike, May 29, 2018.Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Gone is the era in which the rules of confrontation are dictated exclusively by one side,” a joint statement of the Palestinian armed groups in Gaza said on Wednesday.

The statement was apparently meant to signal to Israel that it could no longer strike at Gaza without retaliation, but it also ties the organizations’ own hands, as they have undertaken not to attack as long as Israel doesn’t. This is the formula on which the 2014 Gaza-Israel postwar agreements were based on, and this what the organizations have agreed on under the almost-failed Egyptian brokerage.

The return to the starting point repositions Hamas as the one responsible for every development in the Strip, whether carried out by itself or by other organizations like Islamic Jihad, the “popular committees” or the Salafi groups. Israel’s readiness to return to “the 2014 lines” shows it sees Hamas as a responsible partner, even without talking to it directly.

>> With eye on bigger threats, Israel quickly agrees to Hamas' request for cease-fire | Analysis

In fact, Israel is acting in Gaza as though there’s no Palestinian Authority, which in the past used to mediate the talks on calming the Strip. By so doing Israel believes it has completed the Gaza Strip’s separation from the West Bank. Such a separation is convenient for Israel, enabling it to justify putting off the peace talks, claiming that as long as the PA wasn’t in control of the Strip there was no point in holding peace talks with it.

A man inspects the damage at a site targeted by an Israeli airstrike a day before, Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, May 30, 2018.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

But the separation is upheld only in the military aspect and will no longer be possible if and when U.S. President Donald Trump presents his peace plan. Meanwhile it will help manage the occupation in Gaza on Israel and Egypt’s terms.

Hamas as a covert partner has so far lived in peace with these terms, as long as it received promises from Egypt to open the Rafah crossing for Gazans to pass to and from Egypt – as Egypt did for Ramadan. It seems Hamas will also be able to receive funds from the United Arab Emirates, which has already contributed money to the Strip and is ready to give the Gazan government tens of millions of dollars the moment the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is implemented. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, despite their ideological differences, agree on the Palestinian reconciliation issue and the Egyptian sponsorship.

Israel, which hastened to declare victory in the current flare-up, hasn’t really achieved a turning point in the status quo that prevailed before the events. If Israel wanted to display its deterrent power, here too it has found that the 2014 conflict’s deterrence has eroded, both in view of the March of Return in Gaza and the duel waged by Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Instead of deterrence, Israel and the organizations have struck a balance of agreements, as though the parties were two enemy states accepting the limitations of their strength.

The big winner appears to be Egypt, which has once again proved its ability to achieve calm when and where it is required. Egypt’s status as a partner to running Gaza from outside was built on the trust forged between it and Israel, and between Egypt and Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Egypt and Israel have established unprecedented cooperation as part of Egypt’s war against terror in Sinai. Israel allowed Egypt to bring large forces into Sinai, including its air force, in a loosening of the Camp David agreements. In exchange, Israel received a firm Egyptian campaign against Hamas tunnels and the organizations’ weapons trails.

Hamas, for its part, was forced to accept Egypt as broker after cutting itself loose from Iran, due to Hamas’ castigation of Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and following the economic pressure Egypt imposed on the passage of goods and residents to and from Gaza. Unlike Israel, Egypt is under no international pressure over its policy in Gaza, while Israel is seen as solely responsible for the 11-year siege.

But Israel’s dependence on Egypt’s ability to play honest broker, which is capable of cooling down any military confrontation, will require Israel to contribute its part to stabilize Gaza’s economy. Not only for humanitarian considerations, about which Israel couldn’t care less, but to prevent more outbursts like the marches of return or a deterioration to a military conflagration.

This may strengthen Hamas, but it’s the price Israel will have to pay so that this partner will continue to bear responsibility for the understandings achieved after the recent flare-up. Also, the continued Gaza-blockade policy will hardly be effective if Egypt decides to fully open the Rafah crossing as part of its policy to preserve Hamas’ power. This power is necessary to Egypt, as it is to Israel, to protect its border on the east.

It is to be hoped that Israel will finally recognize the futility of the blockade on Gaza, rather than see it as another prestigious asset that is too valuable to give up.

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