The deal reached Friday to continue the flow of Qatari money to the Gaza Strip has averted a conflagration along the border, at least for now. The weekly protests at the fence ended with one Palestinian killed by Israeli troops.
It appears the deal will achieve relative calm for a limited amount of time, but in the long run it could reduce Hamas’ commitment to prevent violence. In political terms, the Netanyahu government still hasn’t achieved a quiet-enough Gaza border in the run-up to the April 9 election.
The monthly transfer of money from Qatar to Gaza, most of which is intended for Hamas officials, was delayed since the second week of January. At first, Israel avoided saying it was delaying the funds – the famous $15 million stuffed in suitcases – and later blamed the wait on an uptick in violence in recent weeks.
The move had yet another reason: publication of photos of those transfers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was attacked by his rivals on the right for what they called a surrender to the enemy.
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Because Hamas tried to rein in the violence at the protests, officials throughout Israel’s defense establishment recommended that the security cabinet approve the transfer of the money.
In the meantime, another obstacle was found. It turned out that Hamas also found the current solution inappropriate for nearly the same reasons. Its leaders also came under attack; Gazans accused it of collaborating with Israel because the money came in at Israel’s approval. Hamas was criticized as an organization willing to forgo its values – violent resistance to Israel – in exchange for Qatari blackmail.
After many delays, the security cabinet decided Wednesday to transfer the money. Even then it appears Netanyahu caused another wait by delaying announcement of the approval until Thursday afternoon.
But then Hamas did its own maneuver – it said it was refusing to accept the money on the terms set by Israel. So on Thursday evening Qatar and the United Nations mediated intensive talks to find a new formula to allow the transfer of the money before the Friday protests.
The new formula included money sent via the United Nations for infrastructure projects under the supervision of international monitors. The money would be transferred to entities working on the projects. Needy families would also receive funds – but not Hamas officials.
This is a convenient solution both for Israel and Hamas because it removes the embarrassment caused by the photos of money-filled suitcases. And then come photos of Hamas employees heading to banks to withdraw the funds.
Hamas can see another achievement in the deal: All aid to Gaza is now provided by official channels; it’s not a Qatari handout. For Hamas this is another step toward de facto international recognition of its rule in Gaza. Rising frustration in the Palestinian Authority over this arrangement comes as no surprise.
The new arrangement also has some problems from Israel’s perspective. Since the United Nations is now involved, it will be harder for Netanyahu to halt the money transfers at will. And since Hamas doesn’t receive any money directly for its officials, it may be less committed to the agreement.
In other words, there’s less incentive for Hamas to maintain calm for an extended period. Also, the new method is supposed to be handled by the United Nations. This may involve an enhanced use of UNRWA services in Gaza – at a time when Israel and the United States have taken steps to curb this refugee agency.
In the middle of the week, Islamic Jihad initiated two shooting incidents against the army at the border fence, one that lightly injured a paratroop company commander when his helmet was struck by a sniper’s bullet. After that incident Hamas took steps to rein in Islamic Jihad and some of its smaller satellites. Hamas activists were also noticeably restrained at Friday’s protests.
At the same time, there are still enough reasons for another conflagration to erupt. There’s the main crisis with the Palestinian prisoners in Israel, particularly the confrontations at Ofer Prison regarding searches that turned up cellphones. Islamic Jihad organized a (partial) hunger strike, and members of other organizations joined in. The crisis there is contributing to the latest rise in tension in the West Bank and Gaza.
The friction has increased between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. On Friday a Palestinian teen was killed in the Ramallah area by soldiers after stones were thrown at an Israeli car. On Saturday afternoon there was another incident involving Israeli settlers and Palestinians near an outpost close to Ramallah. One Palestinian man was reportedly killed and ten others were wounded.