Analysis |

Israel and Hamas Spin Narrative, but Gaza Pandemic Fears Force Calm

For Hamas, recent developments are a proof it can use military force to extort concessions from Israel ■ Trump administration wants to complete sale of F-35 jets to UAE before November election

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian policemen block a street in Gaza City amid a two-day lockdown due to first cases of Covid-19 in the general population, August 25, 2020.
Palestinian policemen block a street in Gaza City amid a two-day lockdown due to first cases of Covid-19 in the general population, August 25, 2020.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel was concerned that a deterioration on the Gaza border would overshadow the first public diplomatic visit to the United Arab Emirates, but in the end, the exact opposite happened. As the Israeli delegation was arriving in Abu Dhabi, its Qatari neighbors achieved another temporary compromise between Israel and Hamas.

As usual, this is a relatively modest deal, which will most likely hold for only a limited time. Until a new reason for a conflagration arrives, Qatar will provide monthly payments, Israel will commit to remove restrictions on Gazan infrastructure projects, and Hamas will hold its fire, meaning it will stop sending explosive-carrying balloons and rockets into Israel.

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The one who deliberately heated up the arena this time was Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar. Last November, the two sides reached understandings regarding a prolonged cease-fire in exchange for a flow of supplies, improved economic conditions and new projects in the Gaza Strip. This plan received its first blow when the coronavirus arrived in March, as Hamas, fearing the pandemic, barred 7,000 Gazans with permits to work in Israel from doing so. The arrangement collapsed completely a month ago, when Sinwar thought he detected Israeli weakness, stemming from a combination of the growing number of infections and the political crisis. This led him to start applying pressure.

Unlike in the past, Hamas didn’t even try to hide its moves. Its own military squads launched hundreds of explosive balloons, while most of the rockets were fired by other factions. Israel responded with a series of retaliatory aerial attacks against a relatively large number of targets and with a further restriction of the fishing zone, as well as by limiting the amount of diesel fuel allowed into Gaza, something that seriously hampered the supply of daily electricity to residents.

Palestinian children do their homework using a gas lamp during a power cut after Gaza's sole power plant shut down amid tension with Israel, Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, August 18, 2020.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

Now, as always, there is a battle over the narrative. The defense establishment is saying that the harsh IDF responses are what induced Hamas to halt their fire. Hamas attributes the deal to the steadfast resistance they demonstrated. The real explanation apparently lies elsewhere. Over the last two weeks there has been a sharp rise in the number of coronavirus infections in the Gaza Strip. From a totally “green” area, Gaza is now dealing with 300 COVID-19 patients, despite determined steps taken to quarantine anyone returning to Gaza from abroad.

On the backdrop of the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, the Hamas leadership is under intense pressure, fearful of a rapid spread of the virus. Around the refugee camps in the central Gaza Strip, where most of the cases occurred, earth barriers were quickly erected to prevent residents from leaving. Under these circumstances, Hamas has lost its zest for battle.

According to the deal concocted by the Qatari delegate, Mohammed al-Emadi, Hamas will get $27 million this week, carried by the emissary. This will be distributed to Hamas-affiliated government workers and to needy families. Starting in the coming months, slightly larger sums will start arriving in Gaza. Israel will remove its restrictions on some infrastructure work. There is apparently also some agreement on bringing in further medical assistance, in addition to corona testing kits which Hamas has recently received. This may include ventilators.

Sinwar was under pressure because of the coronavirus once before, in April, but then the government managed to get a grip on the virus. This time, things are more complicated. Perhaps there is another opportunity for discussing the release of two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two IDF soldiers, held in Gaza. Last time, Sinwar hinted that he was open to negotiations in exchange for medical assistance. The need is apparently more critical this time.

Yet it should be remembered that these are flimsy agreements and that Sinwar may conclude from the events of recent days that it’s possible to exert military pressure to extort more agreements and an easing of conditions. Another factor is Emadi’s mood. The Qataris are not happy about the latest move by the UAE, which has hardly invested in the occupied territories, yet has improved its regional standing by its deal with Israel. It’s possible that at some point Qatar will be fed up with being the Hamas ATM, seeing that this is not translated into an improved regional status.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is still not showing willingness to return to the security and civil affairs coordination with Israel, even though three weeks have passed since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a freeze on plans to annex territory and add settlements, as part of the negotiations with the UAE. It seems that PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who was surprised by the secret deal reached by Israel and the UAE, wants an explicit commitment by Netanyahu that annexation will not come up in the future, before he, Abbas, restores the coordination.

Palestinians burn cutouts depicting Donald Trump, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Benjamin Netanyahu, in Nablus, West Bank, August 14, 2020.Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS

Abbas is punishing himself to some extent since the PA, and mainly Palestinian residents, are the main ones suffering from the impasse, which is having adverse effects on the economic situation in Ramallah. In the meantime, said Emirate officials this week to Israeli journalists, they also expect Israeli guarantees that no annexation will take place. In early negotiations between the two sides, there was talk of a five-year commitment. As far as is known, Netanyahu did not accede to this request.

At the same time, the question of selling American F-35 warplanes to the Emirates remains. Despite Netanyahu’s vehement denials, it’s becoming clearer that the Gulf state is expecting a deal with the United States, hoping that Israeli opposition is only lip service, which will allow the Trump administration to slightly bend its commitment to maintain Israel’s military advantage. Defense Minister Benny Gantz confirmed this week in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that there are negotiations over such a deal, adding that Israel can obtain other military systems, supposedly as compensation for what the Emirates get.

The Foreign Policy website noted that completing a deal such as this usually requires a year, but the administration is interested in completing it before the November presidential election, or at least before next January. The pace at which this is approved by the Congress, which is expected to raise questions regarding the impact of this deal on Israel’s security, depends on the intensity of the opposition expressed by Netanyahu. U.S. law does not give Israel a veto over deals that endanger its military advantage. It only obliges the president to consult with the Israeli government before he decides.

In light of the temporary lull in Gaza, Israel’s attention returns to the northern front. In his latest speeches, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah no longer hides his determination to carry out an attack on the northern border, in response to an aerial strike by Israel in Damascus at the end of July, in which a Hezbollah operative was killed.

Lebanese men watch Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah during a televised speech, at a coffee shop in the southern suburbs of the capital Beirut, August 30, 2020.Credit: AFP

Nasrallah’s words accord with Israel’s assessments, after two failed attempts by Hezbollah to retaliate. First, a Hezbollah squad was located and its crossing over the border foiled, near Har Dov. Later, sniper fire missed a group of Israeli observers near Kibbutz Menara. Estimates are that in his determination, Nasrallah wants to launch a limited operation that will settle accounts with Israel without dragging the region to an escalation.

In the meantime, after a long lull, there was another report of an Israeli strike in Syria, again at the Damascus airport, on Monday night. According to reports in Syria, several soldiers, including officers, were killed. In contrast to the operation in which the Lebanese operative was killed, no serious response is expected this time. In the prevailing rules on the northern front, one Lebanese life is worth much more than those of several Syrian soldiers.

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