The new measures Israel enacted on Wednesday to ease conditions in Gaza are a significant achievement for Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar.
Sinwar, who has rarely appeared in public in recent weeks (with some rumors in Gaza suggesting that he’s fearful of an assassination attempt by Israel), had continued to exert pressure on Israel until he attained his goal.
The list of measures – which Israel did not rush to publicize, in contrast to its usual trumpeting of sanctions when those are imposed – is the most far-reaching since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force in June 2007.
The most important item is the granting of an additional 2,000 work permits allowing Gazans to work in Israel, given to people defined as merchants. In practice, this is a fiction agreed upon by both sides.
There is no entrepreneurial campaign in Gaza, and the devastated economy there has not engendered 2,000 new and ambitious merchants overnight. Without saying so explicitly and under the guise of allowing the entry of merchants, political echelons and the defense establishment are starting to grant gradual legitimization to the idea of renewed employment of Gazans within Israel.
Last year, Israel started handing out entry and work permits to 5,000 residents of the Gaza Strip, who were also termed merchants. Many of these were laborers who found work in construction, industry and agriculture. Two thousand more laborers will now join them. This easing is as vital for Gazans as air. It joins a list of other alleviating measures Hamas has obtained from Israel recently, mediated by Egyptian intelligence officials. These include the expansion of the fishing zone to 15 nautical miles from the coast, the import of large quantities of cement for construction without employing the tight supervision that was put in place after Operation Protective Edge in 2014. There was also approval given to bringing in heavy equipment that was held up by Israel for years. There was also a promise to promote, with relative urgency, large infrastructure projects.
Hamas is now receiving what it couldn’t extort from Israel through a year and a half of confrontations along the border fence. As reported in Haaretz last summer, there were serious deliberations among Hamas leaders regarding the continuation of mass Friday protests along the border. In incidents that erupted, mainly around these protests, more than 300 young Palestinians were killed. Thousands more were injured, with many losing limbs after being hit by Israeli sharpshooters.
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That campaign was a large and bloody Palestinian defeat. The pressure did not bring about concessions by Israel or a significant easing of the situation, and led to mounting frustration with Hamas in Gaza. This led Sinwar to halt these protests, but not to completely abandon the use of violent methods. It is possible that the calculated and limited use of violent means in recent weeks, such as launching explosive devices attached to balloons as well as the sporadic firing of rockets and mortar shells (usually by rogue factions), is what ultimately brought some gains for Hamas.
This would not have happened were Israel not in the midst of an election frenzy. Hamas identified the political distress beleaguering the Netanyahu government and continued exerting pressure until it obtained these alleviating measures this week. It’s possible that the prime minister is preparing an operational surprise for Hamas, as he hinted at last week, but judging by what’s happening on the ground, that organization is so far only reaping benefits from Israel.
On Wednesday morning, shortly after the new measures took effect, there was a shooting incident along the Gaza border, east of Khan Yunis. The Israel Defense Forces spokesman reported that Islamic Jihad sharpshooters had fired into Israel and were hit by returning Israeli sharpshooter fire. Reports from Gaza indicated that one civilian was hurt by Israeli fire, without mentioning the earlier shooting from Gaza.
The coming days will show whether Hamas is ready to completely desist from using violent methods in exchange for these benefits, or whether it is indicating with a wink and nod to smaller groups that launching balloons or rockets will be tolerated. As far as is known, Israel is not demanding that Hamas aggressively impose its authority over these factions and arrest their members or stop acts of terror committed by rogue networks in the West Bank.
In an optimistic scenario, the new measures should ensure quiet up to the election on March 2. After that, the two sides will have to work on a longer-term arrangement. The IDF, which has supported easing conditions in the Strip over the last few months, continues to express optimism regarding Gaza. We’ll soon know if this is warranted.