Analysis

Israel, Hamas, Hail Victory in Ending Hunger Strike. But Real Success Is the Timing

The deal struck between prisoners and the prison service came just two days before Palestinians commemorate prisoner's day, thwarting violent escalations along the border

Protesters demonstrate on the one year anniversary of the March of Return, March 30, 2019.
Adel Hana,AP

The moment the agreement ending the hunger strike by Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails was struck, both sides hastened to trumpet it as their own stunning achievement. In Gaza, a movement for prisoners heaped praise on Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in the Strip, for the organization’s triumph in the negotiations. Israeli media for their part lauded the wisdom and toughness of the Israeli negotiators.

The truth seems to lie somewhere else, contrasting both narratives. As a seasoned security source put it, after the past year of tension along the Israel-Gaza border, the main achievement is that Israel and Hamas managed not only to climb a tree two days before the election on April 9, but managed to climb back down two days before the Palestinian prisoners’ day.

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In other words, the crisis at the prisons had threatened to reignite the clashes along the border, but the conflagration was thwarted on the eve of the election. Now a solution has been found for the crisis, with timing that will prevent the annual demonstrations for prisoners’ day in the West Bank from turning into violent demonstrations of identification with the plight of the prisoners.

The present crisis with the prisoners began in mid-January over the “pilot” to jam cellphone reception in two wings occupied by Hamas prisoners, approved by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at the Ramon and Ketziot prisons (older cellphone jammers, which are considered less effective, were installed years ago at Ofer Prison and in the Fatah prisoners’ wing in which Marwan Barghouti is incarcerated at Hadarim Prison).

FILE Photo: Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar attends a rally in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, January 7, 2016.
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

The Hamas prisoners responded by rioting. Last month a Hamas prisoner stabbed and wounded two guards at Ketziot. The tension between the prisoners fanned tensions on the border and on two occasions rockets were fired at the greater Tel Aviv area and at Hasharon, incidents that the parties agreed to call accidental on the Palestinian part. The Israeli army and coordinator of activities in the territories were dubious about the move by Erdan and the Prison Service, out of concern about how it would affect the situation in Gaza right before the election.

Some sources in security circles were also dubious about the argument posed by the Israel Prison Service and Shin Bet security service that prisoners in Israel are key to directing terrorism in the West Bank. They feel that although cellphones had been smuggled into the prisons for years, communication through them is relatively limited and that terror efforts is chiefly led directly by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and units in the West Bank, without need for the prisoners as middle men.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realized that the cellphone battle could disrupt the relative quiet on the border with Gaza and sway election results. Ahead of flying to Russia on April 4, Netanyahu ordered the security chiefs to do whatever it took to end the strike. The Prison Service took over negotiations from the Shin Bet, with involvement by the National Security Council and with Egyptian participation. Palestinian sources in Gaza said Tuesday that Egyptian intelligence had been highly active in the talks to end the strike, even holding three meetings in Gaza with Hamas leaders.

In Israel, they say the Egyptians were worried that the prisoners’ strike, which in their view was over a minor issue, would imperil negotiations for a protracted cease—fire in Gaza. Ending the strike would enable them to focus on the main priority: an arrangement that includes an absolute cessation of violence by Hamas in exchange for Israel and Egypt relieving the blockade of the strip, and money to rehabilitate Gaza’s deteriorating infrastructure, which is getting worse and worse. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political arm, confirmed on Tuesday that the crisis over the prisoners could sabotage the accords to achieve quiet in the Strip.

Yet the problem of the prisoners continues to shadow the situation in Gaza. Many of the prisoners still expect to be released in a future deal with Israel, in which two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two soldiers would be returned from Gaza. However, the gap between the parties’ positions is wide and in the somewhat longer run, the difficulty bridging them could hamper broad rehabilitation of the Strip.

Palestinian security prisoners in Nafha Prison, January, 2019.
Reuven Castro / Walla

As for the agreement that were actually achieved, not all is clear. Israel is taking pride in rejecting the prisoners’ demands to remove the cellphone jamming technology and to enable visits by family membrs of the Hamas prisoners to resume. Hamas is happy about the precedent that public phones will be installed in the prison sections for security prisoners, from which the prisoners can call their relatives. What has not been said loud and clear is that there are about 40 more security sections in which the jammers haven’t been installed yet –as said, that was just a pilot. It is not clear if or when the plan may be extended. Moreover, Israel isn’t saying whether it would actually use the jamming technology in the two sections where it was installed, or just leave them in place.

Nor is that all. It is not trivial to monitor calls from public phones. In contrast to surveil the territories or enemy countries, any eavesdropping of such kind requires a specific warrant issued by a judge, given in advance, and subject to various restrictions. The installation of the public phones therefore involved migraines for the Shin Bet, which is supposed to stay on top of any damage to security that could ensue from phone calls. The bottom line is that the agreement achieved does not look like any special achievement for Israel, more like a compromise that the sides were forced to reach under Egyptian pressure and the threat that the strike would prevent the main goal from being achieved: quiet in the Strip.