Analysis |

U.S. Hopes to Unveil Breakthrough in Gaza Cease-fire Alongside Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan

Several Israeli ministers hint Israel is willing to soften demands of Gaza's full demilitarization ■ Meanwhile, Israeli army braces for Islamic Jihad retaliation for killing three of its members Sunday

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinians ride in a donkey cart past graffiti showing U.S. President Donald Trump with a footprint on his face and Arabic that reads, Gaza City, May 20, 2018.
Palestinians ride in a donkey cart past graffiti showing U.S. President Donald Trump with a footprint on his face and Arabic that reads, Gaza City, May 20, 2018.Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Achieving a cease-fire (or hudna in Arabic) between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip will most likely suffer a delay, despite ongoing negotiations being pursued through several channels.

Egypt, the United States and the United Nations have made progress in formulating a plan, and some ideas were discussed for the first time at the Gaza Conference at the White House in March.

Both sides, however, are on standby while Hamas gears up for another wave of border protests, starting June 5 – the 51st anniversary of the Six-Day War.

In the background, separate tensions have developed between Israel and the Islamic Jihad group in Gaza. On Sunday morning, Israeli forces noticed a roadside bomb near the border fence in southern Gaza and an Israeli tank shelled a nearby observation outpost in response, killing three militants.

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In the past, Islamic Jihad would have responded to any harm done to its people by Israel. In recent months, though, Hamas has deliberately avoided firing rockets toward Israel and forbade smaller groups from firing – despite nearly 100 deaths during protests along the fence since the end of March.

The question is, what Islamic Jihad's next move will be, considering the overarching Palestinian policy in the Strip emphasizes the narrative of a popular uprising against Israel over armed struggle.

Most of the proposals to rehabilitate Gaza were raised by Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the former coordinator of government activities in the territories, at the conference the Trump administration held in Washington.

The ideas include a long list of projects to upgrade the Strip's infrastructure, partly in northern Sinai on the Egyptian side of the border. The initial intention is to push $1.5 billion worth of projects funded by a number of countries, with thousands of Gazan laborers carrying out the works in the Sinai Peninsula.

As Haaretz reported earlier in May, the plans include building an industrial zone, desalination plants, a power station and plants making construction materials in the northern Sinai. At first, the plans ran into Egyptian hesitation but now interest is picking up again. At the same time, the idea of Qatari mediation for a truce in the Strip arose.

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Statements by some Israeli ministers in recent weeks gave the impression that Israel is softening its earlier demand, which conditioned rehabilitation of the Strip on full disarmament – meaning Hamas would have to forgo all of its weapons. Based on the ideas currently being discussed, Hamas would stop firing rockets and digging attack tunnels from Gaza into Israel and, in exchange, the gradual rehabilitation of the Strip would begin.

Those deeply concerned about developments are the families of slain Israeli soldiers Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose bodies are being held in Gaza, as are two Israeli civilians. The families suspect that the Egyptians and Americans are cooking up an arrangement that will make life better in Gaza, while leaving the issue of the missing soldiers unresolved. A protest on the matter was scheduled for Monday evening.

In practice, though, Washington will probably try to synchronize presenting a solution for Gaza with unveiling U.S. President Donald Trump's peace plan.

At the moment, after several delays, the Trump administration is talking about the end of June – which also marks the end of Ramadan. The chances of Trump's move being praised in Ramallah seem remote given the Palestinian Authority's well-founded suspicion that the president is coordinating his moves with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Americans, however, do hint they will try to coordinate the moves in both Gaza and the West Bank, meaning that the plan to aid the Strip will have to be put on hold for another month. Another sign that nobody is in a rush – despite the high number of Palestinian casualties in the past two months – is the fact that the politicians have yet to ask the Israeli military for its opinion on the cease-fire.

Thirst for revenge

Meanwhile, on the northern front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that only the Assad regime's troops should be present in southern Syria.

His remarks are being interpreted as a clear message in support of the withdrawal of Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps from areas near the Israeli border. As Haaretz reported Sunday, Russia has changed its position and may endorse the withdrawal of Iranian forces and related groups to over 60 kilometers (37 miles) away from the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights – that is, east of the Damascus-Daraa road, as Israel demanded last fall.

Concurrently, top Iranian security official Ali Shamkhani – also a crony of the Islamic Republic's supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, announced that Tehran has closed its account with Israel.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Shamkhani said Israel had paid the price for its aggression against the Revolutionary Guard Corps, by which he meant the Iranian rocket fire from Syria toward Israel on May 10, which was carried out in retaliation for a number of Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria.

Following that incident, the Israel Defense Forces said 32 rockets had been fired from Syria, four of which neared Israeli territory in the Golan Heights before being intercepted by Iron Dome anti-missile defense systems. The Israel Air Force responded with another attack on Iranian targets and destroyed an aerial defense system belonging to the Assad regime, which had fired on Israeli jets. The Iranian version is different, though, and claims more serious damage was done to Israel. Interestingly, even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech this month that Iran had taken its revenge against Israel.

One could interpret these statements as a desire on the part of Iran and Hezbollah to declare an end to the game of cat and mouse being played in the north.

The fear publicly expressed by high-ranking Israeli officials about possible war in Syria or the Gaza Strip in May has not come true. It is accurate to say that tensions escalated on both fronts, but what appears to be responsible political maneuvering by both political and military circles prevented a descent into war.

That said, the weak point remains: There has been no progress in resolving the fundamental problems that birthed the tensions on both fronts. Iran has probably not abandoned its ambition to establish a military presence in Syria, and there has been no improvement in the sorry state of the Gaza Strip.

In practice, Israel continues to manage the risks – ranging from order to war – in almost all the arenas that interest it.

In Syria, the Russians and Americans are making attempts to create order, though the risk exists that Iran will resist the pressure and will continue to rub up against Israel.

In Lebanon, the various political camps are waiting for a governing coalition to take shape. But the tension with Israel is likely to resume the moment the IDF's efforts to rebuild the border fence reach points of contention – at Rosh Hanikra and by Misgav Am (and Netanyahu again threatened on Sunday to prevent the production of weapons in Lebanon).

In the West Bank, tensions could arise anew in connection with Trump's initiative, or if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' health worsens (the 82-year-old was released from hospital on Monday, after nine days). And in the Gaza Strip, genuine economic and civilian relief is a necessary condition for stabilizing the situation along Israel's border.

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