Analysis

Israel Has a Target Bank but No Policy

Both Israel and Hamas are clenched in a system of mutual deterrence and dependence, which will only grow as long as there is no feasible diplomatic plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Streaks of light are pictured as rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Israel, May 5, 2019.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

>> Update: After four Israelis and 23 Gazans killed, cease-fire reached between Hamas and Israel

The praise heaped on Egypt by Hamas and Islamic Jihad for its efforts toward bringing about a cease-fire may testify to the atmosphere these organizations are trying to create. However, the difficulties are still great, since Egypt needs to conduct multi-dimensional negotiations.

It has to obtain agreements between the political leadership of these organizations and their military wings, to create a basis of trust between Hamas and Islamic Jihad and between these two and Israel. According to Arab sources, Egypt invited Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior Islamic Jihad commander, to Cairo, after rockets were fired at Israel, while the group’s secretary-general Ziyad al-Nakhaleh clarified that the first salvo was fired without his knowledge. Also invited to Cairo was Marwan Issa, the chief of staff of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, to coordinate understandings between him and al-Ata, thus “closing” the tactical aspects.

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Haaretz Weekly Ep. 26Haaretz

In light of the continued fire at Israel, it’s unclear if the micro-negotiations conducted by Egypt and the organizations have led to full agreements, but it seems the political wings have agreed on the need not to give Israel a pretext for a more extensive military operation that could include ground operations in Gaza. The two organizations are asking Egypt to request that Israel desist from targeted assassinations, since for them these operations take matters to a new level that requires harsher responses on their part as well. Publicly, spokesmen for the two organizations declare that they are not worried about these assassinations since they can replace anyone Israel kills. They no longer rely on a small group of leaders, they say.

Egypt is trying to convince the organizations and Israel that in this confrontation there will be no scenario of victory or defeat. “This is a needless round for both sides,” an Egyptian commentator who writes in government-run newspapers told Haaretz. “The agreement on conditions for calm was formulated a few months ago. The demands on both sides need no improvement since both sides have already agreed on the issues. The organizations argue that Israel has not met its commitments and Egypt agrees.”

His words accord with what the organizations’ spokesmen have said in interviews to Arab media outlets. They said that “if Israel had fulfilled its commitments this round could have been prevented.” According to a European diplomatic source, Egypt may ask that a senior Israeli representative arrive in Cairo shortly to formulate guarantees it could give to implement earlier understandings, while the heads of the two organizations are still in Cairo.

It’s true that there already is an agreement between Israel, Egypt and the two groups on the outline for aid and reconstruction of Gaza, but according to the European diplomat, Egypt realized that Israel had difficulties in implementing the agreement, not just because of the rocket fire, but due to the election. It now seems that Netanyahu might postpone this further, until a new government is formed.

“Every such delay will make it harder to reach a cease-fire, and as long as the fire continues, both sides could reach a point of no return, with even Egypt unable to convince the two sides to return to the negotiating table,” warns the diplomat. These concerns have also been expressed by UN envoy Nikolay Mladenov, who is working tirelessly to stabilize a cease-fire.

So far, Israel is enjoying international silence, with no pressure to halt its fire while it’s taking fire from Gaza. The concern is that regional states such as Turkey will turn to the UN Security Council with a demand to force Israel to cease its attacks on Gaza. Opening a diplomatic front against Israel at the UN will be considered another achievement by Hamas, which in any case is enjoying enhanced status in light of Mahmoud Abbas’s lying low, and because Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, is perceived as the party dictating Palestinian responses to Israel and to the peace plan the White House is expected to announce at the end of Ramadan.

Israel is not clarifying what its long-term goals are in Gaza. So far, it’s only putting out fires, such as allowing Qatari money into Gaza, expanding the fishing zone off Gaza’s coast and increasing the volume of goods entering Gaza.

These moves were canceled or reduced with the heating up of the situation, but even when they’re reinstated, they will not placate Hamas and the 2 million Gazans who’ve been living under a suffocating closure for 12 years. Egypt has increased the volume of goods entering Gaza through its border, telling the two groups’ leaders that the Rafah crossing would remain open and not be used for leverage over them, as was the case in the past.

The issue is not care parcels or a carrot-and-stick policy. Egypt and Israel view Hamas as the sole ruler, responsible for what transpires in Gaza. Both states negotiate with the organization, directly or indirectly, and not just about cease-fires. Both states have formulated economic policies dependent on Hamas’ military actions. Egypt negotiates directly with Hamas, while Israel still declares it doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, but it encourages Egypt to negotiate on its behalf. It is willing to implement agreements made by Egypt.

Hamas is part of the bluff, not recognizing Israel and refusing to negotiate with it publicly, but in practice behaving pragmatically. Both sides are clenched in a system of mutual deterrence and dependence, which will only grow as long as there is no feasible diplomatic plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.