Israel and Hamas Seal Deal, but Turning Back on Abbas Could Come at a Price

Israel rewarded Hamas' belligerence with concession that could see millions of dollars flow into Gaza. In the West Bank, worrying signs are racking up

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the the Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, March 31, 2019.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the the Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, March 31, 2019.Credit: Fethi Belaid,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel and Hamas continue to tiptoe toward a long-term cease-fire in Gaza.

This week, the crisis over the cell phones in prisons was resolved fairly quickly. Hamas prisoners halted the hunger strike (which had relatively few participants) they’d launched following the installation of cellular jamming systems in two prison wings. Israel did not remove the jammers, as the prisoners had initially demanded, but it also did not say if it would reactivate them or expand the program to four more security prisoner wings. Most likely, this will not happen. Hamas also scored a major achievement -- also at the expense of Fatah, whose prisoners will soon benefit from the Israeli concession – when Netanyahu approved the installation in the security wings of public phones which the prisoners can use (under supervision) to speak with their families.

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Egyptian intelligence personnel played a key role in the effort to come up with the phone compromise, with the aim of removing this obstacle to progress toward an arrangement in Gaza. In its eagerness to resolve the crisis, Israel let the Egyptians intervene in a clearly internal issue – prison regulations.

As occurred when tensions erupted on the Temple Mount a couple of months ago, Netanyahu seems to be making a systematic effort, with Egyptian and Jordanian aid, to put out unwanted fires that could get in the way of his main objective in the coming months – achieving calm in Gaza.

The Israeli defense establishment believes that it has an indirect partner here in this: Hamas in Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, whom it thinks is wary of war and would rather reach a compromise that would ease the economic hardship in Gaza.

But one major obstacle and one big risk still lie in the way of reaching an arrangement. The obstacle concerns resolving the issue of the captive and missing Israelis in Gaza, without which conditions cannot be eased for the Palestinians to the full extent that they expect. The risk comes from Islamic Jihad, which could try to sabotage an arrangement with terror attacks.

Netanyahu may be ready to go easier on Hamas, but he is not taking any similar steps toward the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The economic sanctions employed by the U.S. and Israel towards the PA, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ insistence on continuing to transfer financial aid to the security prisoners have exacerbated the economic crisis in Ramallah, to the point that security personnel have seen their wages cut in half. These moves threaten the PA’s stability and the continuation of effective security coordination with Israel, but Netanyahu has been adamant about sticking to them.

Yahya Sinwar, speaks to foreign correspondents, in his office in Gaza City, May 10, 2018. Credit: Khalil Hamra / AP

Waiting in the background, of course, is the Trump administration’s peace plan. Its debut was pushed back again this week until June, after Ramadan and the new Israeli government is formed. Netanyahu is apparently complete coordination with the American president regarding the details of the plan.

Two days ago, the new PA prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh stated the obvious, that for the Palestinians (and the Europeans) – a plan that does not include an end to the occupation, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the ’67 borders with Jerusalem as its capital and a solution to the refugee problem will never be acceptable.

Trump’s plan will offer them much less than that. The presentation of the plan, amidst a worsening economic crisis in the PA, could prompt Abbas to make a miscalculation in which he would either encourage or turn a blind eye to wide-scale violent riots in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Troubling signs are mounting at the PA Chairman’s headquarters. The Bir Zeit University student council elections that were held this week ended in a tie between Fatah and Hamas, even as Hamas activity is systematically suppressed by the PA. The elections apparently reflect, more or less, the division of political power between Fatah and Hamas. And they reinforce the PA’s fear of secret moves by Hamas to subvert its rule in the future.

Netanyahu now talks much more openly about his policy regarding the Palestinians. He has essentially abandoned his support for the two-state solution that he expressed, under pressure from President Barack Obama, in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech.

At the same time, the prime minister is trying to effect a full differentiation between the West Bank and Gaza. In the past, the distinction between the West Bank and Gaza was meant to convey to the Palestinians that there was value to preserving the security coordination and diplomatic negotiations with Israel – and therefore West Bank residents enjoyed a better economic situation and much greater freedom of movement than Palestinians in Gaza.

What’s happening today is just the opposite. Israel is in the process of rewarding Hamas for three military confrontations in Gaza, thousands of rockets fired at Israel, attempts to mount terror attacks in the West Bank and total refusal to hold direct negotiations.

In return for all this, if Islamic Jihad doesn’t mess things up, Hamas will obtain relief of the blockade and a lot of money that the international community will invest in rebuilding Gaza’s collapsing infrastructure. The Palestinian Authority will get nothing.

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