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Palestinian Reconciliation Talks a Sign of Hamas' Distress

As far as Israel is concerned, Palestinian reconciliation could lead to calm on the Gaza border for a relatively long period, although there are still many question marks

Amos Harel
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Hamas's leader Ismail Haniya waves as he arrives for a meeting  with Palestinian prime minister in Gaza City, October 2, 2017.
Hamas's leader Ismail Haniya waves as he arrives for a meeting with Palestinian prime minister in Gaza City, October 2, 2017.Credit: SAID KHATIB/AFP
Amos Harel

The progressing talks on reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas reflect, first and foremost, the strategic distress that Hamas has been experiencing over the past year. If Hamas agrees to a new power-sharing agreement with the PA, it will demonstrate that the pressure that’s been exerted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Gaza has finally borne fruit.

It would also be the result of the mediation efforts made by Egypt. As far as Israel is concerned, it’s possible that there is potential to achieve calm on the Gazan border for a relatively long period, although there are still many question marks.

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On Monday the PA cabinet travelled to Gaza and on Tuesday officials from both sides are expected to meet, mediated by Egypt. The first step, which Hamas has essentially agreed to, regards the bone of contention introduced by the group a year ago, namely the dismantling of the Strip’s management committee that so aggravated Abbas.

From 2007 to 2016, although Hamas had established a government in Gaza and controlled it, the PA generally agreed to continue funding civil activity in Gaza. The establishment of the committee was Hamas’ complete renunciation of its ties with the PA, and Abbas responded by cutting the salaries of PA employees in the Strip and halting payments for electricity, which made the lives of Gaza residents barely tolerable.

Yahya Sinwar (center), Hamas chief in Gaza, attends a meeting with Hamas youth in Gaza City, September 28, 2017.
Yahya Sinwar (center), Hamas chief in Gaza, attends a meeting with Hamas youth in Gaza City, September 28, 2017.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

In 2014, during a similar crisis with the PA, Hamas chose to extract itself with a military escalation against Israel, which ended (due in part to a series of misinterpretations by both sides) with the wider conflict of Operation Protective Edge. This time, it seems as if Hamas’ new leader, Yahya Sanwar, the terrorist who spent more than 20 years in an Israeli prison, has drawn the opposite conclusion. Hamas is signaling that it’s prepared to make concessions to the PA in return for easing the economic pressure on Gaza.

It’s possible that the organization is still recovering from the war damage of three years ago, and it seems its leaders also understand that it’s hard to go to war when Egypt maintains an alliance of interests with Israel and Qatar, Hamas’ other possible patron, which has its own problems with Saudi Arabia in the Gulf. Although the Iranian aid to Hamas’ military wing has been restored, it’s doubtful that it can give Hamas enough breathing space.

Many details about the evolving agreement are still not clear. One of the most important questions relates to the “weapons of the resistance,” the large weapons arsenal held by the Hamas military wing. From the messages being conveyed by the group’s leadership recently, it seems it has no intention of making its armed operatives subject to the authority of the PA, and that the only units that will revert to Abbas’ control will be the civil defense system and the “blue” police.

The second question relates to the future of the border crossings. During previous stages of the negotiations, there was talk of allowing the presence of the PA’s security personnel at the crossings between Gaza, Egypt and Israel. Israel is concerned that Hamas is trying to imitate the Hezbollah model; like Hezbollah in Lebanon, it will have a part in the government, but its own security forces will remain far from the PA’s control.

A third question concerns the role of Mohammed Dahlan, the Fatah man who fell out with Abbas. The Egyptian generals expressed their backing for Dahlan years ago and are seeking a new role for him in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is apparently prepared to consider this, but for Abbas, Dahlan and his men are a red flag that could undercut the agreement.

For Israel, a relatively long-term arrangement in which the PA gets a role back in the Strip has advantages, because it could impose a certain restraint on Hamas’ behavior. The possible disadvantages lie in the question of the supervision of Hamas’ military wing and its weapons, and also what could happen in the West Bank. In recent years, out of concern that Hamas would try to overthrow him, Abbas has cracked down on Hamas in the West Bank and arrested hundreds of its men. Reducing the pressure on Hamas cells in the West Bank could give them more leeway to carry out terror attacks.

There’s another reservation that Israel may not feel comfortable about expressing in public. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman would prefer a rift between the PA and Hamas, if only so that Abbas cannot claim that since he has reunited the Palestinian ranks, diplomatic negotiations can resume. It would seem that both would prefer lengthy intra-Palestinian negotiations rather than an agreement that may obligate Israel to take steps of its own.

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