Wooed by Egypt, Hamas and Israel Can Still Prevent All-out War

In need of a stable economic base, Hamas has no problem continuing talks while bombs are flying. Meanwhile, Israel seems willing to negotiate as if it weren't being attacked – and to strike back as if there were no talks

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A member of Hamas' military police walks through rubble at a site that was hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on August 9, 2018.
A member of Hamas' military police walks through rubble at a site that was hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on August 9, 2018.Credit: Khalil Hamra,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Hamas’ leadership in the Gaza Strip, led by Hamas’ political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh and Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, was not enthusiastic over the way Hamas’ overseas leaders entered Gaza last week. The luxury cars in which they entered Gaza from Egypt, their arrogant conduct – especially that of Saleh al-Arouri, Haniyeh’s deputy, and the inevitable tension between officials in Gaza suffering public anger and Israeli airstrikes and officials living in Qatar and Lebanon couldn’t be hidden even by the plethora of verbiage praising the first Gaza meeting between the two leaderships.

The meeting was even “approved” by Israel, which promised not to attack those arriving from outside even though they head its wanted list.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had expected the Hamas leadership to torpedo Egypt’s efforts to reconcile between Fatah and Hamas and broker a long-term cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, thereby sparing him the need to make a formal decision on the Egyptian proposal, which he views as a draft that can still be amended.

But when he discovered that, despite the disagreements within Hamas – mainly over the question of transferring control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority and what the organization’s attitude should be toward U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” – negotiations on the Egyptian proposal had become serious, he sent a list of reservations to the head of Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel, that would alter the proposal completely.

Kamel, who was in Washington last week, invited the Hamas leadership to Cairo to show them Fatah’s answer. Hamas had already announced that it accepts the Egyptian plan.

Palestinians inspect a damaged building after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, Gaza City, August 9, 2018.Credit: Khalil Hamra,AP

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“We thought they would be small changes to the plan’s principles, but we discovered it was a new plan,” said Khalil al-Hayya, who serves as Sinwar’s deputy in his role as head of Hamas in Gaza. Al-Hayya attended the Cairo meeting along with six other Hamas leaders, four from abroad and two from Gaza.

Fatah proposed a three-stage plan, he said. First, in the week after the agreement was signed, PA cabinet ministers would resume full authority over Gaza’s affairs.

The question of merging Hamas’ security services with those of the PA would be left for the next stage, in which security officials from both Palestinian factions would meet with Egyptian officials to discuss how to establish security control over Gaza similar to that prevailing in the West Bank. A monitoring committee comprised of Fatah, Hamas and Egyptian representatives would oversee implementation of whatever agreement was reached.

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In the second stage, which would last about a month, Hamas would also have to stop collecting taxes in Gaza. In exchange, the PA would promise to pay the salaries of all Hamas government officials, including policemen and firefighters involved in civil defense, but not members of its military wing. The Egyptians, in contrast, had proposed that Hamas keep collecting taxes and use the money to pay its security forces, which include fighters from its military wing; Hamas would then transfer the remaining funds to the PA for it to pay the salaries of the Hamas government officials, including policemen and firefighters.

In the third stage, which would last ten weeks, both sides would prepare for PA elections.

During this week’s discussions between Hamas leaders and the heads of other factions in Gaza, some factions, like the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, favored accepting Abbas’ plan. But others opposed it, including Islamic Jihad, the Popular Committees and Hamas’ military wing. The Hamas delegation then took those responses back to Cairo.

Meanwhile, the fighting between Hamas and Israel continued. On Thursday, Hamas announced that “the escalation is over and its continuation depends on the occupier’s behavior.” The statement said Hamas had finished responding to “Israel’s aggression” and had upheld its principle that fire would be met with fire.

But it said nothing about Egypt’s intensive involvement over the last two days, which included threatening language toward Hamas, or the Trump Administration’s effort to persuade Israel to curtail its military responses and refrain from launching a major operation, or UN envoy Nikolay Mladenov’s tireless efforts on the Gaza-Israel issue.

Both Washington and Cairo see ending Gaza’s humanitarian crisis as much more important than dealing with the tactical confrontation between Israel and Hamas. Rightly or wrongly, Washington considers Gaza critical to advancing its “deal of the century,” given Abbas’ refusal to even meet with the U.S. envoys and his success in mobilizing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan against the deal.

That success was first and foremost thanks to Trump’s unilateral decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the city as Israel’s capital. Trump later sparked another uproar when he froze aid to UNRWA, the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees, in an effort to bring about the agency’s closure. Finally, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly asked Jordan to strip Palestinian refugees in Jordan of their refugee status. All of this led Cairo and Riyadh to issue public statements against the American plan.

The U.S. administration therefore attaches great importance to solving the Gaza crisis, which will at least alleviate the tragedy of its two million residents and end the fighting, enabling both sides to move on to a diplomatic process.

Egypt, which denounced the embassy move and opposes any harm to UNRWA, is willing to help advance a diplomatic process. But it’s much more interested in solving Gaza’s crisis, since its security strategy includes trying to prevent the reopening of the terror pipeline between Gaza and Sinai.

Therefore, contrary to its previous position, Egypt is no longer conditioning any solution to the Gaza problem on internal Palestinian reconciliation.

This stance may be intended to pressure Abbas. But the fact that Cairo decided to open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza more or less permanently, that it is in advanced talks over Gaza’s reconstruction by Egyptian companies and has even gotten Israel to agree that Port Said, rather than Cyprus, will serve as Gaza’s port – and that it did all this without involving the PA – shows that Egypt wants progress on Gaza with or without the PA, and with no connection to the “deal of the century.”

In Egypt’s view, the American "deal of the century" is half-baked, vague and unrealistic. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who returned on Thursday from a two-day visit to Washington, termed his talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton “positive,” but media reports prior to his return said that during his meeting with Trump’s Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt, no new ideas were presented to him, nor did Washington offer any guarantees that Israel would agree to the deal. In other words, he heard no willingness to apply American pressure on Israel.

Shoukry also received no details on how much money Washington will give for Gaza’s reconstruction. And more importantly, he got no concrete pledge to increase American aid to Egypt.

According to these reports, the Americans asked Shoukry to promise that Egypt would oversee security affairs in Gaza until the crisis is solved. Shoukry replied that he’s the wrong address; Palestinian affairs are handled by Egyptian intelligence and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. He told associates this request showed that the Americans don’t understand the situation in Gaza.

Assuming these reports accurately reflect the nature of the talks in Washington, Egypt’s conclusion is that it needs to separate the Gaza issue, which requires immediate attention, from the “deal of the century,” which currently looks like a dream.

Rebuilding Gaza isn’t only important for Egypt’s security. It would also give Egyptian companies a new market, especially since much of the new infrastructure would be built on Egyptian territory and provide jobs for Egyptian Bedouins in Sinai financed by donor states. Moreover, opening a Palestinian port in Port Said wouldn’t just give Egypt new revenues; it would also give it another lever of political control over Gaza, just as the Rafah crossing does.

These Egyptian and American considerations have boosted Hamas’ political status. Today, the organization is being wooed. Two years ago, Egypt viewed Hamas as a hostile terrorist organization working with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State, but now, it’s willing to accept Hamas as Gaza’s legitimate government.

Israel, too, is willing to give Hamas this recognition, citing the need for a responsible government, at least on security issues. In the past, Israel negotiated with Hamas only over prisoner exchanges and cease-fires. Now, it’s holding diplomatic and economic negotiations with Hamas over Gaza’s future. The fact that Israeli and Hamas officials aren’t negotiating directly doesn’t change the fact that talks are taking place.

After Hamas won the 2006 PA elections, it proposed continuing civilian cooperation with Israel, but without formal recognition. Israel adamantly rejected that offer. Now, 12 years later, Israel and Hamas seem headed back to that idea.

The danger is that Hamas could become intoxicated and make new demands. But so far, it has evinced a desire to advance the negotiations and at least arrange a long-term cease-fire with Israel, lasting five to seven years.

It’s still not clear whether it will insist on linking negotiations over the Israeli captives and missing people it holds with negotiations over a cease-fire and economic rehabilitation. But according to Palestinian sources, Hamas seems to be heading toward a concession on this issue.

Hamas badly needs a stable economic base, both for its day-to-day operations and for its long-term control of Gaza. And it has no problem continuing the talks while bombs and rockets are flying. Israel, too, seems willing to continue negotiating as if it weren’t being attacked, and to strike back as if there were no talks.

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