The window that opened for negotiations between Israel and Hamas is the result of alarm on both sides as the coronavirus spreads. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, are aware of their common problem, which gives rise to shared interest. Add to that that next week the month of Ramadan begins, and that the Gaza Strip is one of the poorest and most densely populated places in the world, and you have an opportunity worth looking into.
“There is a little movement, both sides are serious, yet reports in the Arab media in general and leaks from Hamas sources in particular regarding significant progress are exaggerated and overly optimistic,” I was told on Sunday by a Western source who is abreast of events. Both sides publicly spread partial information, aiming to influence their deliberations. The source said the negotiation is indirect, conducted by sending telephone messages through several intermediaries, first and foremost representatives of Egyptian intelligence, but Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov is in the picture too. When the Prime Minister’s Office made the unusual announcement about Israel’s willingness to engage in contacts, the discussion was already in full swing. The person in charge on the Israeli side is Yaron Blum, the coordinator for POWs and MIAs and a former member of the Shin Bet security service, along with members of military intelligence, the Mossad and Shin Bet security service. Meir Ben- Shabbat, the head of the National Security Council, is also privy to the talks.
Talks about a deal have been stuck fast for five and a half years, in effect since the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. According to various sources, intermediaries from Egypt, Russia, Germany, Qatar and the United Nations have come and gone, but the two sides didn’t budge. Hamas possesses the remains of the bodies of Israeli soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, and has information about Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who crossed the border to Gaza on their own volition and are apparently alive.
Sinwar pictures (or perhaps fantasizes about) the Gilad Shalit deal of October 2011 as a model for emulation. Netanyahu, who was worrying back then the cost of living protests would doom his political future, capitulated and agreed to return 1,027 terrorists in exchange for a single soldier. Quite a number of the terrorists had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and Israel considers them murderers “with blood on their hands.” One of those released at the time was Sinwar.
But this time the situation seems different. Netanyahu stated in the past that he would not be ready to pay such a heavy price again. His political situation is good, the opposition won’t raise obstacles to the deal and his Likud base follows him through hell and high water. The only likely opposition could come from Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and his party Yamina, which no longer pose a challenge to him. Hamas is also aware of that. What saved these negotiations from deadlock is a combination of circumstances that coalesced at a single point in time.
“The stars are simply aligned now,” said a former defense source who has experience with Hamas and is familiar with its way of thinking. And what are these circumstances? Among other things, they include the quiet that has been maintained on the Gaza border in recent months. “This quiet is no coincidence, nor is it due to some virus. There is an silent agreement between Israel on the one hand and Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the other, to maintain it,” said the source.
Of course, the coronavirus crisis became an additional factor. The assistance that Israel is sending to Hamas (over the weekend, a shipment including a testing machine was sent) contributes to the relaxed atmosphere. In addition, in recent weeks Israel has allowed dozens of doctors and nurses from Gaza to participate in a course for treating the coronavirus at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.
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It is clear to the decision makers that public health in the Strip is an Israeli interest, and that they cannot stand by doing nothing if the pandemic escalates there quickly and the hospitals collapse. That scenario would also likely impact the situation in the West Bank and vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority. So Israel is helping, even if only sparingly, and we can assume that a way will also be found to send the medical equipment that Israel has purchased from Turkey to Gaza. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding up the shipment for the time being with a demand that Israel send a share of it directly to Hamas.
But while cautious optimism is due, there are also reservations. According to reports, the gaps between Israel and Hamas are very wide, as said, and it is very doubtful that Israel’s best offer meets Hamas’ minimum demands. There is even a dispute regarding tactics: it has been reported that Hamas would like a deal in stages, the first of which is a humanitarian gesture: ventilators and the release of a limited number of young prisoners in exchange for information about the fate of the missing Israelis. Israel does not have a surplus of ventilators, and would have to purchase them from abroad. In addition, Israel knows that Goldin and Shaul were killed, and because of the circumstances under which Mengistu and Al-Sayed fell captive, they are not the focus of public discussion.
Moreover, for Hamas, the very fact that it is not insisting already during the first stage on the re-release of those who were released in the Shalit prisoner exchange (and sent back to prison after the murder of the three teenagers in the West Bank in the summer of 2014) is a major concession. It wants to save them for the second stage of the deal, and then to get to the third stage, during which the heavy bargaining over the hard-core prisoners will be conducted.
According to Arab sources, a deal of that type could include young people with no organizational affiliation, women, sick prisoners, and elderly prisoners who are terminally ill.
Hamas has other plans, and in any case, its clock ticks far more slowly. Sinwar will not easily waive the release of his friends from his prison days.