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Israel's Reluctance to Discuss Hamas' Truce Offer Could Blow Up on Nakba Day

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Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli forces at Palestinian demonstrators during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border, May 4, 2018.
Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli forces at Palestinian demonstrators during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border, May 4, 2018.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Haaretz's report about messages Hamas is indirectly sending Israel about its willingness to consider a long-term cease-fire in Gaza won’t spur the Netanyahu government to a quick diplomatic response.

As things seem at the moment, an exit strategy has yet to be found that will permit a reduction of tensions along the Gaza fence ahead of the huge demonstrations Hamas plans for Nakba Day on May 15. Without indirect negotiations or a willingness to consider significant relief for the Strip by Israel or Egypt, it will be hard to prevent a mass event May 15 that could lead to many deaths.  

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Hamas’ deliberations on the matter began as early as October during the strategic crisis facing Hamas leaders in Gaza. The Hamas leader in the Strip, Yahya Sinwar, is ready to consider ideas that would let his organization offload Gaza's day-to-day administration and responsibility for the lives of some 2 million people living in severe want. In that context, Sinwar promoted the failed reconciliation initiative with the Palestinian Authority and was also prepared for a cease-fire with Israel.

Lt. Col. (res.) Alon Eviatar, who for many years was an adviser on Palestinian affairs at the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, told Haaretz that any decision Hamas makes on this matter will have to involve all three of its leaders: Sinwar, top leader Ismail Haniyeh and his predecessor, Khaled Meshal, who today has no official role.

“Sinwar’s interest is clear – preventing the collapse of the Strip for which Hamas will be blamed and lose control of the Strip. Haniyeh objects to the idea,” Eviatar said.

He said Sinwar might agree for Hamas’ military wing to hold its fire as part of a reconciliation agreement with the PA or a cease-fire with Israel, but he has rejected any proposal for Hamas to disarm. As Eviatar put it, “Sinwar’s line says: ‘The weapons will remain in our hands for time of need. In the meantime, in exchange for significant relief measures, we’ll promise not to use them against Israel."

Haaretz reported on Monday that the Hamas leaders in Gaza recently conveyed to Israel messages indicating their willingness to negotiate a long term cease-fire in the enclave. These messages were passed through different channels on several occasions over the last few months. Hamas wants to tie the cease-fire with an easing of the siege on Gaza, permission to embark on large-scale infrastructure projects and a prisoner and body exchange deal.

As far as is known, Israel has not responded clearly to the messages.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh delivers a speech in Gaza City on April 30, 2018. Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Reports presented to senior defense establishment officials and political leaders say that tensions in Gaza will remain high even after the massive Nakba Day demonstration, when Palestinians mark the expulsion of Arabs from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence. According to intelligence assessments, Hamas is still in dire and unprecedented strategic distress and is currently more open to discussing options it rejected in the past.

The Hamas leadership is engaged in a lively debate regarding the negotiation of a cease-fire and the exchange of prisoners and bodies. The daily Israel Hayom reported two weeks ago that Sinwar accused Haniyeh of yielding to Iranian pressure in opposing a deal.

The Israeli army continues to describe the condition of infrastructure in Gaza as dire. However, it has refrained from calling the situation a humanitarian disaster due to criticism voiced by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who avoids the term and claims that it doesn’t accurately depict the reality there. In recent months the defense establishment approved several measures designed to ease conditions, such as expanding the fishing zone in the Mediterranean Sea, granting businesspeople more entry permits into Israel and hooking up an American desalination plant to the power grid. However, these measures are described as having only a marginal positive effect.

Two main landmines remain in Gaza: the abysmal condition of the infrastructure and the residents’ limited purchasing power. As long as these issues are not addressed head on, the chances of improving the situation remain slim. An uptick has been recorded in recent months in the number of residents from refugee camps and poor neighborhoods who turn to organizations and charities to provide them their most basic needs.

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