Analysis |

Qatari Cash and Egyptian Mediators Brought Israel-Gaza Calm, but for How Long?

Paradoxically, the last round of fighting increases the chances of a large-scale operation in Gaza; U.S.-Iran tensions may have repercussions and Lieberman's silence indicates he may return to the Defense Ministry

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinians shop for traditional Ramadan lanterns in Gaza City, May. 7, 2019.
Palestinians shop for traditional Ramadan lanterns in Gaza City, May. 7, 2019. Credit: Hatem Moussa,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The final note, for now at least, in the latest round of fighting between Israel and Gaza sounded on Monday night and came from Qatar. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry announced $480 million in emergency aid for the two rival Palestinian entities, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas government in Gaza.

The announcement from Doha was also greeted with a sigh of relief in Jerusalem. The days when Israeli hasbara accused the Qataris of abetting terror and dreamed of seeing Qatar Airlines’ sponsorship of the Barcelona soccer team canceled are long forgotten.

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The Qataris continue to maintain close relations with states and movements tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, including terrorist organizations, but Israel has more pressing problems at the moment.

The Qatari emissary, Mohammed al-Emadi, is now a welcome guest in Jerusalem, and is regularly treated to a warm reception in Ramallah and Gaza. It was Emadi’s absence from the scene due to a family member’s health problems, which required him to travel to the United States, that apparently delayed the transfer of funds to Gaza. The reasons vary for the periodic flare-ups between Israel and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but they always end the same way: with Egyptian mediation and Qatari money.

Just how the emergency grant will be divided, with the month of Ramadan about to begin, is not entirely clear yet. The statement issued in Doha speaks of $300 million to be transferred to the PA, mainly for health and education, and another $180 million in humanitarian aid. The statement did not specify how much of this is designated for Ramallah and how much for Gaza, or whether this figure includes the money the Qataris previously pledged to transfer, which included $15 million a month (some say this will be doubled to $30 million) for Hamas administrative employees in Gaza.

Despite the economic disparities between the two Palestinian territories, the West Bank is also in dire need of financial aid from the Gulf. The crisis between Israel and the PA over the transfer of money to Palestinian prisoners has created a big hole in Ramallah’s budget. With both sides entrenched in their positions, Qatari generosity is needed to get through the near term in peace.

In conversations with journalists once the two days of fighting ended, IDF officials stressed the need for an accompanying diplomatic effort in Gaza to ensure longer-term quiet. They estimated that the extensive air strikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza would only yield a few weeks of calm. Without addressing the fundamental problem, the severe economic situation in Gaza and the tight blockade, it will be difficult to achieve longer-lasting stability, especially with Islamic Jihad, which for its own reasons (and as a result of Iranian instigation) is liable to try to reignite the situation sooner rather than later.

Government officials probably weren’t so thrilled to hear such comments. Somebody made sure to leak from the Sunday cabinet meeting that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman advised the ministers to seek a cease-fire. In other words: Yet again it’s those defeatist generals who are keeping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from squashing the Gaza terror groups once and for all.

In fact, the cabinet decision authorized Netanyahu to make his own decision on whether to pursue a cease-fire or continue the military operation. And the directive the army received from the prime minister was to hit the Palestinian organizations hard and restore quiet to the border communities, while trying not to get dragged into war, particularly with Memorial Day and Independence Day coming up followed by Eurovision a week later.

Khalifa al-Kuwari, director of the Qatar Fund for Development, cuts the ribbon during the opening ceremony of a new hospital in Gaza City, April 22, 2019. Credit: AP

No official version is being issued of the indirect arrangement that was ultimately reached with Hamas. Generally speaking, it appears to be another return to the understandings that were reached at the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and a reinforcement of the as yet-unfulfilled agreements reached after the latest rounds of fighting in November 2018 and March 2019.

The idea is to keep a regular cash flow going into Gaza, to ease movement at the border crossings and to finally get infrastructure repair projects going. In return, the Palestinians are supposed to ensure total quiet on the border: no rockets, no sniper attacks, no incendiary balloons. The Friday protests near the fence will continue for now. The Egyptian intelligence minister, Abbas Kamel, who hosted the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Cairo when the violence erupted, closed the deal with the help of the United Nations.

The Israeli defense establishment believes the Egyptians remain suspicious of Hamas, because of its ideological identification with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian regime’s fierce nemesis. If Hamas breaks the calm once again, Israel hopes to see Egypt punish those involved, even barring the families of Gaza government officials from passing through the Rafah crossing.

Anticipating an ambush

The shots that ignited the recent days of combat were preceded by an intelligence warning. The IDF knew that Islamic Jihad was planning an ambush using snipers or anti-tank missiles along the border. Several attempts were thwarted, but last Friday, during the weekly protest, the jeep of Col. Liron Batito, head of the Southern Command’s Gaza Division, came under sniper fire. A male officer and female soldier were wounded. The decision for a harsh response, an officer in the General Staff said this week, “was made within five seconds.”

Kochavi had felt for weeks that the usual Israeli response to shooting incidents – strikes on empty Hamas positions and offices – had exhausted its usefulness. This time the air force hit a manned Hamas position. Two members of the Hamas military wing were killed in the bombardment. Thus, Israel knowingly entered a round of fighting: The joint response from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which began Saturday morning, included barrages of more than 700 rockets fired into Israel. Israel’s air force hit hundreds of targets in Gaza. Unlike in previous rounds, this time as many as 40 percent of the targets attacked belonged to Islamic Jihad, which lost 11 of its men.

Hamas did not join in the offensive only for the sake of revenge. It is also fending off an internal challenge from Islamic Jihad, which adheres to the path of armed resistance (muqawama). In the absence of economic improvement, Hamas feels the earth in Gaza burning under its feet, say Israeli analysts. The latest round of fighting ignited by Islamic Jihad provided Hamas with an opportunity to reenergize the negotiations for a long-term accord.

Like the earlier rounds of fighting, the recent days of fighting also did not end with any conclusive victories. Israelis should be skeptical of the lists of achievements being cited and assessments of the amount of deterrence that was restored. Shortly after the cease-fire went into effect Monday morning (which occurred, as usual, without any official Israeli confirmation), the media were quoting a statement from “a security official.” This source explained that “the terror organizations were surprised by the force we used and clearly saw that the rules of the game have changed. Therefore they halted the fire of their own accord after they had made repeated requests for a cease-fire.” This is a laundry list of hasbara messages, not a sober analysis of the situation.

It’s true that the IDF did operate somewhat differently than in previous rounds of fighting during the past year. The IDF responded with greater force, resumed the targeted killings (albeit of mid-level operatives) after a nearly five-year-long hiatus, struck a large number of targets, including some high-rise buildings, and managed to thwart several Palestinian attempts at surprise attacks -- including bombings via drone aircraft and a cyberattack that was later found to have been quite primitive.

The Palestinians’ main achievement was showing their ability to produce intensive and continuous fire, which also inflicted casualties – four Israeli civilians were killed, and Israelis from Ashdod south saw their daily lives turned upside down. In addition to the 700 rockets that flew over the border fence into Israel, about 200 more apparently fell inside Gaza. This attests to a poor level of maintenance, but also to a nearly endless supply of rockets. Islamic Jihad actually has more rockets than does Hamas. Both groups operate local underground production lines, which can replenish the stock in a short time.

A multi-story building that was hit and destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, Gaza City, Monday, May. 6, 2019. Credit: Khalil Hamra,AP

Hamas and Islamic Jihad clearly tried to overcome the Iron Dome rocket-intercept systems by launching multiple rockets in quick succession. In one hour, between 7 P.M. and 8:00 P.M. Sunday, 117 rockets were launched into Israel, several dozen of them at Ashdod, where residents heard the red-alert sirens spreading from one part of the city to the next within minutes.

One Ashdod resident, Pinchas Prezuazman, was killed when he was unable to get to a shelter in time. Thirty-five of the rockets that were fired during the two days of fighting landed in built-up areas. In four of those cases, including two in Ashkelon, civilians were killed by direct hits. The army will have to reassess its deployment of the Iron Dome system, especially in Ashkelon, even though the intercept rate was still high – over 85 percent.

Where do we go from here? The cease-fire put Israel and Hamas back on track to implement an arrangement to maintain quiet, but paradoxically, the latest flare-up also increases the risk of a larger military operation. It is not the least bit surprising that Hamas opted for an arrangement. But the problem lies in the difference between its expectations and those of Israel regarding what the ultimate agreements will look like. Also, there is always the possibility Islamic Jihad will again try to sabotage the cease-fire.

And perhaps there is another danger that is not spoken of: The IDF was pleasantly surprised by some of its achievements, such as the effectiveness of its strikes on Hamas targets and the resumption of targeted assassinations. When methodical preparation yields improved results, it’s naturally tempting to try to replicate them – which could lead to injudicious recommendations to the political decision-makers when the next round of fighting comes along.

The gathering storm

The intelligence branch of the General Staff firmly believes that the strategic warning it presented to the government and the cabinet a few years ago remains valid. A wide-scale conflict could still erupt on the Palestinian front. We’ve already discussed Gaza, and in the West Bank the status quo with the PA is barely being maintained thanks to close security coordination and Israel’s caution in employing military force. But the deteriorating position of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the economic crisis and apprehension about what awaits with the Trump peace plan could all lead to an explosion. There is plenty of negative energy in the air.

Meanwhile, there is the growing tension between America and Iran. This week, the Americans ratcheted up the pressure with explicit threats against the regime in Tehran, in the wake of a suspected Iranian plot to hurt America or its allies. Channel 13 reported that the Americans learned of the plot from Israeli intelligence. A number of simultaneous trends here – increasing American sanctions that have already dealt Iran’s economy a serious blow, Tehran’s uncertainty over whether to push the limits of the nuclear accord (which the United States withdrew from a year ago), and the continuing Israeli campaign against Iranian targets in Syria -- could intersect. Tehran has been taking a more aggressive stance on all of these issues, and could ramp up its responses to any measures taken against it.

At the same time, the United States is employing uncompromising rhetoric. Two days ago, administration officials described the dispatch of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to the Middle East as a warning message to Iran. This public threat followed the designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization and the decision to cancel the exemptions given to eight countries from the sanctions on trading for oil with Iran. In a television interview this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a leading proponent of the administration’s hawkish stance against Iran, accused the Revolutionary Guards of responsibility for killing more than 600 American soldiers in Iraq over the past decade, using roadside bombs they supplied to the Shi’ite militias. As far as the Americans are concerned, a reckoning still awaits, certainly with regard to Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.

All of this indirectly ties in to what is happening in the territories. Islamic Jihad also has its own internal agenda in Gaza, connected to its struggle with Hamas. But the potential for Gaza to be used for diversionary operations against Israel, as a secondary front in a larger conflict, remains unchanged. Ziyad al-Nakhalah, the new leader of Islamic Jihad, was recently photographed with Soleimani in Beirut. Iran does not dictate tactical operations to Islamic Jihad. It does send money and set overall strategy. This, too, is part of the overall picture, which looks to become bleaker as the summer progresses.

Lieberman in the wings

During the last round of fighting, one politician was noticeably silent: Avigdor Lieberman. Last November Lieberman resigned as defense minister and left the government after being severely critical of Netanyahu’s “appeasement” policy in Gaza. He also repeatedly attacked Netanyahu’s approach throughout the recent election campaign, and particularly during the previous round of fighting in March.

One might think Lieberman’s silence means he was satisfied this time that Israel employed harsher military measures, but Lieberman hadn’t been urging merely heavy bombardments – he’s been pushing for a real war on Hamas and ousting it from power if necessary. His silence this time (while Gideon Sa’ar expressed some general criticism on Twitter, earning a scathing response from “Likud officials”), bolsters the theory that Netanyahu and Lieberman are close to concluding negotiations on the latter’s return to the coalition, quite possibly as defense minister. The only question remaining is how Lieberman’s hawkish stance on Gaza can be reconciled with Netanyahu’s more cautious policy.

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