Opinion |

Trump's Peace Plan May Have a Surprising Palestinian Partner: Hamas

Senior Hamas figures are sending up a direct-negotiations trial balloon, indicating interest in buying into the White House plan to ease the crisis in Gaza. The consequences could be explosive

Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada
Masked militants from the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, a military wing of Hamas, march with their weapons, during a large-scale drill across the Gaza strip. March 25, 2018
Masked militants from the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, a military wing of Hamas, march with their weapons, during a large-scale drill across the Gaza strip. March 25, 2018Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

Last week, the former spokesperson of Hamas' interior and security ministry, Islam Shahwan, posed an unusual question on Facebook.

"What if decision makers in Gaza invited [Israeli] decision makers to meet at the [Erez] border crossing to discuss Gaza’s tragic conditions, to find a direct solution between the two sides, away from the interventions of [Palestinian Authority, Egyptian and other mediator] devils?"

Facebook question by former Hamas spokesman, Islam ShahwanCredit: Facebook

It seems hardly coincidental that Shahwan raised this possibility of a public debate about direct contact with Israel at the same time as Trump Mideast advisors Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt were visiting the region to discuss Trump’s apparently imminent peace plan which, by many accounts, not least Kushner's own hints, intends to deal with Gaza separately from the West Bank.

This trial balloon on such a sensitive topic, likely the result of instructions from high up in the ranks of Hamas, reveals a vital discourse going on now within the Islamist movement which rules Gaza. The same organization, formally dedicated to Israel’s destruction, now appears to be suggesting direct talks with it- to break the predicament of its reliance on mediators for what have been years of fruitless indirect talks with Israel.

Two hours after Shahwan’s post, senior Hamas analyst, Ibrahim al-Madhoun, proposed a framework for that dialogue: setting out, in effect, the best case scenario: maximum Hamas gains with minimal and unarticulated concessions. That can easily be seen as a tactic for neutralizing most kneejerk opprobrium for steps towards appeasement with Israel.

"Hamas doesn’t mind any deal through which Gaza will be set free, the blockade will be lifted, with a seaport and an airport and a prisoner swap. Weapons would be regulated, without giving up any of the rights of the Palestinian people," he suggested.

Close enough to top Hamas leaders to know what's going on behind the scenes, Al-Madhoun reiterated widely-reported news in the region - that Hamas is working with Egypt to push a comprehensive cease-fire deal with Israel. That deal would mean Hamas would stop building tunnels, continue to prevent primitive projectiles from being fired towards Israel, and participate in a prisoner swap. In return, Israel’s illegal blockade on Gaza would be lifted and Gaza would build an internationally-run airport and seaport.

The timing of reproducing such proposal might show how Hamas is hastening to pre-empt the Trump peace plan, to finally get a share of the "peace process cake" - and to have their revenge on the Paestinian Authority at the same time.

Palestinian Hamas top leader Ismail Haniyeh, center, attends the Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Eastern Gaza City. June 15, 2018Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

In fact, Hamas has consistently proposed those same parameters after each of the last three wars on Gaza. As Haaretz's Amos Harel wrote last week, quoting a former senior IDF official, that Hamas’ proposals are known and predictable, and "whatever issues will be discussed [after a new round of fighting] can and should be discussed now."

Some Hamas members argue that it is actually PA president Mahmoud Abbas who, somewhat paradoxically, is responsible for the rising interest in dialogue with Israel within the Islamic movement.

Abbas believes that taking any positive actions towards Gaza would only serve Trump’s "deal of the century," which he has boycotted for fear it aims to establish an autonomous parastate in Gaza. Hence he has consistently refused to authorize humanitarian and relief projects to make Gaza less "uninhabitable."

That means he has become the common enemy for both Hamas and the Trump administration.

By exacerbating Gaza’s isolation, misery and suffering through numerous sanctions, Abbas’s pushing of Gaza to the wall will only increase the chances that his Palestine Divided nightmare will actually come to pass, by bolstering Gazans' dream of disengaging from the PA and its monopolist, oppressive behavior.

Just see what happened when Gazans learnt that Israel was planning to deduct the damages from Abbas’ PA: partly to show their enthusiasm for the damage this would cause it, the number of teenager "kite-warriors" immediately increased tenfold.

Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, surrounded by protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip's border with Israel. April 20, 2018Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

Many Hamas members now praise the idea of talking directly to Israel rather than talking to its "subcontractors" in the PA. Hamas increasingly speculates that Israel might even be more flexible and rational than the oligarch Abbas, who, many believe, looks down on Gaza, and see it only as a potential source of income through its gas field, or at best, a useful symbol to strengthen his arguments. The claimn he serially fails to express genuine and lasting concern about how Gaza has been turned into a "human rubbish heap," a "sinking ship," and a "toxic slum," as prominent international agencies have described it.

Hamas is of course still concerned about falling into a diplomatic trap, where the only outcome of direct negotiations would be words as empty as the decades of the formal peace process; "Israel will offer nothing other than talks and photo ops that show how Hamas sank to the bottom," a Hamas friend told me.

Hamas would thus squander its legitimacy as the opposition through its engagement in "empty talks," and consequently lose the sanctity of its resistance, its immunity to criticism and uprisings, and its loyal members who would defect en masse to jihadist and Salafist groups more rigorously dedicated to chaos and destruction.

They remember that back in 2014, in a joint delegation headed by the PA, Hamas negotiated a cease-fire agreement with Israel that ended the latest war between them. Those negotiations lasted over four weeks.

"We first had to convince [Fatah leader] Azam al-Ahmad, then al-Ahmad had to convince the Egyptians, the Egyptians had to convince the Israelis, and all of them were against us," a Hamas leader once told me. The outcome of these negotiations, he continued, was "a blank paper with no stipulations and a bunch of verbal promises," that never materialized.

A tractor drives through a field on fire caused by kites and balloons loaded with flammable materials flown over by Palestinians from Gaza. Near kibbutz Nir Am, June 5, 2018Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

But it should be remembered that this isn’t the only time Hamas has courted an American administration, or Israel. After it won the first post-disengagement elections in 2006, the incoming Hamas administration wrote to US President George W. Bush, expressing its willingness to accept "a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders" in the context of an extended ceasefire, and to the Middle East Quartet, emphasizing that it had been elected to pursue "a negotiated settlement with Israel."

Hamas leaders then repeatedly declared their “support” for “a Palestinian state on [the] 1967 borders,” joined a national unity government on a platform that implicitly recognized Israel and pledged to adhere to any agreement reached between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel if it passed a popular referendum.

In 2007, after Israel sealed Gaza’s crossing points completely, two Hamas leaders, close to Ismail Haniya, met with Israeli representatives at the Erez crossing. When they were turned back empty-handed, al-Qassam brigades, the military arm of Hamas, ensured the two men were pushed to the margins of power before any news of the meeting got out.

Ever since, Hamas has consistently offered Israel a long-term truce, accompanied by an end to the Gaza siege, a proposal it reiterated at the outset of the current demonstrations in Gaza.

Some on the Israeli side have recognized that, at long last, some form of dialogue is essential. Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s Mossad has argued, "[W]e have not given them any options but confrontation," and that constructive engagement might "start the long trajectory that would ultimately lead to... mutual [co-]existence," a view echoed by senior Israeli military leaders.

Walid al-Hattab, right, distributes free porridge during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City. May 31, 2018Credit: Adel Hana/AP

Although, Netanyahu has stated that, "the entire border situation is due to the economic situation. Plain and simple," his government’s approach to handle the economic and humanitarian disaster in Gaza is neither plain nor simple, but non-existent. The continued blockade and devastating sanctions imposed on Gaza force it into what the UN Special Rapporteur once termed "survival mode."

Hamas’ sole goal right now is to reinvigorate Gaza and alleviate pressure on its caged population; to achieve more than four hours of electricity a day and far freer travel in and out the Strip. Hamas is sending out a variety of messages – both threats and invitations, for talks, reconciliation, the Great March of Return or incendiary kites.

But if it's met by indifference, Hamas always has its last resort: a short but sharp military escalation against Israel. Such an escalation would have to be sufficient that the international community could not ignore it, galvanizing collective active before it trips a fourth, redundant and preventable war.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

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