Sunday’s security cabinet meeting in Jerusalem expresses for the first time Israel’s willingness to relinquish some of the ambiguity surrounding the indirect negotiations with Hamas over a long-term cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. Even now, most of the information on the negotiations comes from the Palestinian side and it is hard to assess its trustworthiness.
But the very announcement of a security cabinet session on the nature of the arrangements with Hamas also reflects the political constraints: About two months before the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs broad legitimacy for his actions in Gaza. From the moment he enlisted ministers farther to the right for the discussion, including Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, he defused some of the expected criticism for concessions to Hamas.
It seems Netanyahu will not manage to completely repel the criticism from the main opposition party, Kahol Lavan, but he will be able to make use of the definitive assessment of Israel Defense Forces chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who said publicly last week that the army has identified an opportunity for reaching an arrangement in Gaza and supports significantly easing the economic situation there. Kochavi helped Netanyahu in citing another claim, too: Israel’s strategic priorities at the moment need to focus on the conflict with Iran on the northern front while calming tensions with Gaza.
Facing the criticism from the right, Netanyahu – along with Bennett – presented another move: A discussion on deducting 150 million shekels ($43.3 million) of the tax revenues Israel collects and transfers to the Palestinian Authority, as punishment for its financial support of terrorists’ families. This step will not completely obscure the impression of the compromise with Hamas, and could very well disrupt the relations with the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah even more. But it seems that the main consideration in the action against the PA now is political more than strategic.
Military Intelligence’s insistence – and that of Kochavi, following its lead – that the leadership of Hamas has made a strategic decision in favor of a long-term cessation of hostilities received a certain amount of support. The Friday protests along border fence with Israel will stop for three weeks, and will be renewed only at the end of March, the second anniversary of the start of the protests. This decision stems mostly from internal considerations – the feeling that the demonstrations no longer serve any effective purpose and the enormous burden on Gaza hospitals to treat the thousands of people injured by IDF fire. But this could also be interpreted as a goodwill gesture to Israel, as part of the overall efforts for calm.
As Haaretz reported in November, Israel is supposed to respond with its own actions. The most dramatic step involves entry permits for more workers from Gaza. Today, Israel allows the entry of about 5,000 Gazans by providing them with commercial permits supposedly meant for businessmen, while in fact many of them work as laborers.
This number could well rise in the future, even reaching 20,000. Because both sides have an interest in minimizing the value of the understandings between them, the method could be to slowly and gradually increase the number of permits. For example, this is how Qatar has acted: For over a year, it has transferred shipments of cash to Gaza, almost never announcing its plans in advance and extending the time period between the shipments every time.
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Hamas has additional expectations from Israel, first and foremost the continued approval of large infrastructure projects in the Strip. The long-term improvement in living conditions in Gaza can be seen in the electricity supply: During the winter two years ago, electricity was on four to eight hours a day on average. Now this number has reached an average of almost 20 hours a day.
Yet there are still risks: The main one is reflected in the internal disagreement between the security forces in Israel. The Shin Bet security service’s uncompromising assessment has allowed Netanyahu to postpone increasing the number of permits for four years. Shin Bet is worried that the terrorist groups in Gaza will take advantage of the permits to bring in terrorists and explosives for attacks within Israel, and warn against any easing of the permit policy. Shin Bet has also highlighted the Gazan leadership’s involvement in directing terror cells in the West Bank. The IDF disagrees with both prognoses. The risks exist, they admit, but are less severe than Shin Bet estimates.
Continued terror attacks in the West Bank are another threat to the long-term calm in Gaza. Over the years, Hamas has refused to agree to a full freeze on its West Bank terrorism. On Sunday morning, the Kan public broadcaster reported that Palestinian sources said that this time, Hamas would not be compromising either. It is hard to see how Hamas would give in here, but as far as Israel is concerned, the danger is clear: One fatal terror attack could lead to a response in Gaza, which could completely undo the calm.
Another question that remains is the Israelis missing in Gaza. The family of Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose body has been held by Hamas for over five years, once again criticized the government’s intention to reach a cease-fire agreement without first guaranteeing the return of the two Israelis held there, as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. Goldin’s parents, Leah and Simcha, accused Netanyahu of violating his commitment to make the arrangement with Hamas conditional on the return of the soldiers’ bodies.
U.S. reacts to Iran
A major incident in Iraq over the weekend in Iraq received very little attention in Israel, which is deliberating over the nature of the cease-fire in Gaza. An American, a civilian contractor of a security firm, was killed by a rocket attack on a military base near Kirkuk. It seems a local Shi’ite militia linked to Iran was responsible for the attack.
This is the first incident in which an American was killed in the area since the Iranians began a coordinated effort with the attacks in the Persian Gulf in May. Western intelligence organizations think the Iranian attacks are meant as a response to the heavy damage the economic sanctions the Trump administration imposed on Iran, after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran.
Iran wants to bring the Americans back to the negotiating table, to lead to a lifting of the sanctions. So far, it has done so by inflicting a growing price on the Saudis and Emiratis, without risking an American response. Even when the Iranians shot down a very valuable U.S. drone in June, the United States avoided retaliating.
Israeli leaders have expressed their frustration over the American restraint in the face of Iranian provocations a number of times. The killing of the American now supplied the administration with a convenient opportunity to respond and make Tehran pay a price. The Pentagon confirmed on Sunday that U.S. planes attacked targets of the Iranian-backed militia in Iraq and Syria, and a number of its members were reported killed.