A month after the latest escalation in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces fears that the opportunity created for a long-term agreement with Hamas will again be missed.
In recent weeks the army has seen an opening for expediting the indirect talks being conducted with Hamas, which could lead to a lengthy break in fighting. But the contacts haven’t seen enough progress, and meanwhile, a new political agenda arising from another election is liable to disrupt the formulation of understandings.
The last Gaza flare-up began on November 13 with the targeted killing of senior Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata. It lasted for two days, during which nearly 500 rockets were fired at Israel. Some 35 Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes, more than 20 of them Islamic Jihad operatives. The defense establishment, especially the army, believed that there was an opportunity to reach an arrangement because of two factors – the blow delivered to Islamic Jihad, and the decision by Hamas' leaders to stay out of the fighting.
Abu al-Ata’s death got the man considered the greatest obstacle to an agreement out of the way. Israeli intelligence officials described Hamas’ decision to stay on the sidelines as a strategic shift, in which the organization has made its top priority an urgent change in Gaza’s economic and infrastructure situation, even at the expense of the important ideological principle of anti-Israel resistance.
Against this backdrop, the IDF and the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories recommended that efforts to reach an agreement be intensified. The General Staff expressed support for a series of relief measures for Gaza, like moving forward large water, power, and sewage infrastructure projects, establishing an industrial zone and increasing the number of permits for Gaza laborers to work in Israeli communities near the Strip. The Shin Bet security service strongly objected to that last recommendation, fearing that the entrance of thousands of workers would allow terror factions in Gaza to plan attacks in Israel.
Nevertheless, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett showed support for the relief measures if they would ensure calm. Defense officials hoped that approving the measures would lead to greater stability and subsequently allow talks to resume on returning the two Israelis and two soldiers’ bodies being held in Gaza.
Last week Haaretz reported that despite another round of rocket fire, the two sides continued the discussions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed to reporters accompanying him in Portugal that talks were continuing about a long-term cease-fire.
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Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi met with local leaders in the Gaza border area and reiterated his support for relief to the Gaza Strip, including the local employment of Palestinian workers as part of the arrangement. He noted the drop in the number of rockets fired, Hamas’ attempts to stop the fire, the lower intensity of the demonstrations near the border fence and a halt to the incendiary kite and balloon launches, and conveyed the view that further progress was possible.
In practice, however, the momentum of the indirect talks seems to have slowed considerably. First, Hamas is having enforcement difficulties; Islamic Jihad responded to the arrest of its operatives involved in rocket launches with further launches. Secondly, Israel has been in no hurry to promote agreements, presumably because its politicians have been distracted by the serious political deadlock. This will only be exacerbated during an election campaign, because Netanyahu and Bennett will find it difficult to make any moves that will be perceived by the right as concessions to Hamas. Criticism has not only come from the right; in the last two election campaigns, Kahol Lavan attacked Netanyahu as weak toward Hamas.
In the meantime, Hamas continues signaling that it seeks an arrangement, although its leaders are making sure to emphasize they are not interested in a long-term cease-fire, but rather a short-term understanding.
The best example is Hamas’ insistence on proceeding with the project to establishing an American field hospital in the northern Gaza Strip despite the Palestinian Authority’s fierce criticism. The PA argues that by going along with the project, Hamas is aiding an Israeli-American espionage plot disguised as humanitarian aid.
Hamas’ decision to stick to the project reflects its leadership’s concern over the collapse of Gaza’s health system, which is also burdened with the thousands of Palestinians wounded by Israeli fire in weekly protests along the border fence.
The army fears that delaying agreements, certainly with new elections in the offing, will lead to missing what they describe as a unique opportunity. In the background is the defense officials’ intense preoccupation with the battle against Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. Iran isn’t showing any signs of abandoning its moves in Syria and its weapons deliveries to Hezbollah in Lebanon, so it’s reasonable to assume that the friction on the northern front will continue in the coming months. The IDF considers this front critical and more dangerous than Gaza, where the army believes it will be possible to maintain calm for a relatively long time.