As Egypt Brokers Talks, Israel Braces for Mass Gaza Protests

Netanyahu can't afford to give Hamas concessions so close to the upcoming election. But without them, the border protests may blow up this weekend

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An Israeli soldier stands atop a tank near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel March 27, 2019.
An Israeli soldier stands atop a tank near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel March 27, 2019.Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The good news is that the current round of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is petering out. On Tuesday night, three rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel and the Israel Air Force retaliated with limited attacks on several targets linked to Hamas.

The bad news is that the next round is just around the corner. If the parties do not reach understandings, mediated by Egypt, on mutual restraint, then at the end of the week Hamas is expected to march tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Gaza border fence. The previous times that the organization initiated mass demonstrations over the past year they involved attempts to breach the fence, extensive sniper fire by the Israel Defense Forces and many Palestinian casualties.

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The reinforcement of IDF forces in the south began Monday, following the rocket fire at Moshav Mishmeret in the Sharon region, in which seven civilians were wounded. A divisional brigade and three regular brigades were mobilized at the orders of Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi.

A ball of fire billows above Rafah during Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip, March 27, 2019.Credit: AFP

Along with openly threatening Hamas with a ground operation, the deployment is in anticipation of the weekend. Some of these forces will reinforce the units regularly stationed along the border, on the assumption that Hamas is planning demonstrations of exceptional force. The peak of the demonstrations this time is expected not on Friday, as usual, but on Saturday, March 30. This is both Land Day and the first anniversary of the “Marches of Return.”

On Wednesday evening, for the first time in two weeks, a delegation of senior Egyptian intelligence officials entered the Strip. The Egyptians are trying to draw up a “limited arrangement,” unofficial understandings that would allow Hamas to receive some concessions regarding movement through the checkpoints, fishing waters and a few other items in return for keeping a lid on the violence until Election Day, April 9, and perhaps somewhat beyond that.

Israel expressed doubts that during this period any “greater arrangement,” could be reached that would provide quiet for many months in return for more significant relief. This idea was on the table in mid-March, but talks were cut off when two rockets were fired at the metropolitan Tel Aviv area, which both sides later decided to define as a regrettable mistake. But because of the rockets the Egyptian delegation scurried out of Gaza and didn’t return until Wednesday.

Now the timetable is urgent, so it will be difficult to formulate a comprehensive agreement before the Israeli elections; in fact, the looming elections will make it even more difficult. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who cut short his visit to the United States because of the rocket fire, is in an uncomfortable position due to the escalation in Gaza. Under these circumstances he will find it hard to provide the significant concessions that Hamas wants because his political rivals will immediately portray this as capitulating to terrorism.

On the other hand, Hamas is also dealing with trying domestic circumstances. It managed to suppress the protests organized in recent weeks, but if it cannot show that it has extracted any sort of concession from Israel it may face another wave of criticism.

During the three years following Operation Protective Edge in mid-2014, Israel took its time and didn’t adopt any of compromise proposals presented by Egypt and the United Nations that were aimed at easing the economic and infrastructure crisis in the Gaza Strip. Hamas’ refusal to advance a solution to the question of the Israeli prisoners and MIAs in Gaza also made it very difficult to achieve an agreement. The stalemate led to the outbreak of violence a year ago, and since then, nearly 300 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip, most of them in clashes along the fence. The present discussion of an arrangement is thus being conducted under pressure – of the expectations from Gaza and the political constraints in Israel.

Israeli soldiers gather next to armored military vehicles near the Gaza border, March 27, 2019.Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The election campaign has already influenced the prime minister’s conduct with regard to Gaza. Netanyahu returned from Washington because he feared being perceived as being detached from the distress of the Gaza border residents if he would stay to address the AIPAC conference. Instead, he addressed the conference by a frequently malfunctioning broadcast from his office in Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. His bureau reported that he conducted a series of security consultations immediately upon his return to Israel.

But the security cabinet was not convened, apparently because the prime minister didn’t want to give another platform to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who consistently attacks him for what he describes as a defeatist policy toward Gaza. And what was not reported about his meetings Tuesday was that a considerable amount of Netanyahu’s time was devoted to political discussions, with the premier and his associates evaluating the implications of the Gaza crisis for the election campaign. In the 12 days remaining until the balloting, security and political considerations will be intertwined even more than usual.

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