Analysis

Israel Now Sees a Rare Opportunity for Long-term Quiet in Gaza

The groundwork for a deal with Hamas is laid, but Israeli security agencies disagree over extent of relief measures

Israeli soldiers patrol the Gaza border the day after the cease-fire was reached with Islamic Jihad, November 15, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

About 10 days after the end of the latest round of fighting in the Gaza Strip, this time against Islamic Jihad, the army has identified a rare opportunity for progress. The Israeli assassination of senior Islamic Jihad operative Baha Abu al-Ata removed what has been the main threat to calm in the Gaza Strip over the past year. At the same time, the Hamas leadership in Gaza, headed by Yahya Sinwar, is showing great interest in coming to a long-term agreement with Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff supports far-reaching relief measures in Gaza in exchange for assurances of quiet. The final decision rests with the politicians, who are mired in a legal and political crisis centered around three indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as great difficulties in forming a new government. In contrast to the army, the Shin Bet security service’s position on the matter is more restrained, the main point of contention being whether thousands more laborers from the Gaza Strip can be allowed into Israel to work.

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While Operation Protective Edge, the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, ended in a military disappointment as far as Israel was concerned, it did result in about three and a half years of relative calm on the Gaza border. But the Netanyahu government’s fear of political criticism at home, along with the frozen negotiations with Hamas over the return of missing and captured Israelis in Gaza, have prevented progress on a long-term agreement.

At the end of March 2018, Hamas extended its patronage to the mass demonstrations taking place weekly on the Gaza border. These quickly deteriorated into violent clashes, during which many of the protesters tried to break through the fence into Israel and were shot by army snipers. In incidents since then, most of which occurred during the Friday protests at the border, more than 300 Palestinians have been killed and a few thousand wounded by Israeli fire.

At the same time, Palestinians ignited a wave of fires in Israeli fields along the Gaza border, by means of kites and balloons carrying incendiary devices. The escalation continued, accompanied by hundreds of rockets fired at Israel. In a two-day round of fighting in May, four Israeli civilians were killed by Hamas rockets and anti-tank fire. In the latest flare-up, which began on November 12 with the assassination of Ata, 35 Palestinians, most of them members of Islamic Jihad, were killed and 500 rockets were launched at Israel.

But the quick end to the latest round, which lasted two days, has given Israel a rare chance of making progress – and perhaps capitalizing on the opportunity that was missed five years ago, after the 2014 conflict. Ata was responsible for more than 90 percent of rocket fire over the past year. Killing him has left Islamic Jihad weakened militarily, with more than 20 operatives from the group’s military wing killed in Israeli strikes.

A wheat field hit by an incendiary device launched from Gaza burns near Kibbutz Re'im, on the Gaza border, June 28, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

This is the context in which Islamic Jihad’s leadership decided to reach a cease-fire with Israel, about 50 hours after the shooting began. The group will probably need time to recover. This is an opportunity to restore it to its original status as a secondary faction to Hamas, not a group that dictates developments, as was the case over the past year.

And for the first time, Hamas made a decision not to take part in the exchange of fire with the IDF, with the exception of its firing of two rockets at Be’er Sheva, two days after the cease-fire took effect. This was perceived by the Israeli defense establishment as lip service to the idea of military resistance, muqawama, against Israel. The army is convinced that Hamas now wants to avoid conflict and make significant economic progress; this creates good conditions for a long-term agreement. Hamas once again signaled its intentions in its decision not to hold the weekly protests on the border fence for the past two Fridays.

The IDF believes that this arrangement can be encouraged by granting additional relief measures to Gaza. For example, in the realm of infrastructure, that means adding another electricity line to the Strip, building a desalinization plant and taking steps to reestablish an industrial zone at the Karni Crossing, on the border of the Gaza Strip south of Sderot. It seems that the army also supports issuing many more permits for laborers from the Gaza Strip to work in Israeli communities on the border, and perhaps in other parts of the country.

The General Staff believes that the laborers can be strictly supervised for security purposes, as is done now, for example, in the West Bank settlements’ industrial zones. The Shin Bet, which is prepared to consider certain relief measures in the Strip, has for years strongly opposed bringing in larger numbers of laborers, arguing that it could increase terror attacks. Israel now allows about 5,000 businesspeople from the Gaza Strip into Israel, but a number of them work as laborers in construction and agriculture.

But before major infrastructure projects are implemented, which the Palestinians consider critical, there must be progress on resolving the issue of the missing and captive Israelis in the Strip. There is a significant gap in expectations in this area, between the Palestinian hope of dictating the mass release of security prisoners [a smaller version of the Shalit deal in 2011] and the Israeli refusal to repeat a deal involving such concessions.

The IDF is vigorously preparing for the possibility of a clash on what it considers its most threatening front: the north, against Iran and its proxies. And in this context, it has identified an opportunity – perhaps one that will not return – to attain a few years of quiet on the Gaza border. This is a very optimistic scenario, but not a baseless one. Hamas, as far as can be understood, is interested. And so implementing it depends mainly on the decisions of Israel’s politicians.