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Egypt Signals Cautious Optimism as It Mediates Hamas-Israel Talks Over Gaza

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Palestinian protesters gather as tear gas canisters are launched by Israeli forces during a demonstration along the Israel-Gaza border, July 27, 2018.
Palestinian protesters gather as tear gas canisters are launched by Israeli forces during a demonstration along the Israel-Gaza border, July 27, 2018.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

At the spot where Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi fell a week ago, almost no sign of this lethal incident remains. Levi, an outstanding platoon sergeant in the Givati Brigade’s Sabra Battalion, knelt atop a high sand dune last Friday as he stationed the soldiers in his sniper force a few dozen meters from the fence bordering the Gaza Strip. On the other side were Palestinian demonstrators.

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Levi was wearing all the protective gear the army gives its soldiers, but a single bullet fired by a Palestinian sniper penetrated his flak jacket and his chest. An air force helicopter was summoned, but the 20-year-old from Petah Tikva was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. He was the first Israeli killed fighting with Gazans since Operation Protective Edge ended almost four years ago.

The army’s operational inquiry concluded that the Palestinian sniper lay in wait behind the first row of houses in an agricultural area east of Dir al-Balah, 600 or 700 meters from the slain soldier. The shooter used a powerful rifle that fires armor-piercing rounds with a 0.5 inch diameter, similar to the Barrett rifle used by the Israel Defense Forces.

The attack was apparently a local initiative by a member of Hamas’ military wing. It’s not clear to what extent Hamas’ leadership was involved in the details, beyond approving it in principle.

Israel responded relatively harshly, firing tank shells at Hamas positions near the fence and bombing several Hamas bases, including three battalion headquarters. By Friday night, Hamas had suffered four fatalities and lost many military assets. At that point, it sought a cease-fire.

As of Tuesday afternoon, all that remained on that dune was a narrow tent left by the IDF snipers. Absolute quiet reigned on both sides of the border during a two-hour tour of it.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi gives his speech at Egypt's new administrative capital, north of Cairo, Egypt, July 24, 2018.Credit: The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

But the following evening, things took a turn for the worse. A few dozen Palestinian children began vandalizing the barbed-wire fence west of the border, about 400 meters south of where Levi was killed. A military patrol was sent to drive them off.

At that point, what is known in IDF jargon as a baited attack occurred. The moment the company commander got out of his jeep, a sniper fired at him. The officer suffered moderate wounds. The cease-fire that had lasted almost four days, aside from a few incendiary balloons, appeared to be collapsing.

The IDF quickly said that this attack wasn’t committed by a Hamas sniper; it was a copycat attack by a smaller, “rebellious” organization that managed to replicate Hamas’ success of the previous week. The response was therefore limited. The army fired tank shells at nearby Hamas positions, killing two operatives, because it views Hamas, the sovereign power in Gaza, as responsible for all violence there. But unlike last week, it launched no air strikes.

Overnight, nine rockets and mortar shells were fired at the Negev from Gaza. Once again, the army blamed “rebels.”

Reading between the lines, it seems the effort to cling to this crumbling cease-fire is due to developments in the indirect talks between the parties, which are being conducted through Egyptian and UN mediation. Hamas is enforcing relatively quiet along the border, and like Israel, it seeks a long-term arrangement in Gaza that would spare both sides a war.

This week, Cairo sounded somewhat optimistic. During a visit to Washington, Gen. Abbas Kamel, the head of Egyptian intelligence, told U.S. officials that there were initial signs of a breakthrough in the talks. Nevertheless, it could still come to nothing.

On the Israeli side, the negotiations are being led by Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman, who has kept officials from several other defense agencies out of the loop. Everyone understands that the economic restrictions on Gaza must be eased significantly to increase residents’ purchasing power, create a few jobs and allow reconstruction of the territory’s ruined infrastructure to begin.

The well-known obstacle is Israel’s demand that Hamas return two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers that it’s holding in Gaza. Hamas refuses to even discuss this unless Israel releases dozens of Hamas members it arrested in the West Bank in June 2014 – people released in the 2011 prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit who were rearrested after three Israeli teens were kidnapped (later to be found murdered) in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. Their release now could further another prisoner swap, and perhaps also the easing of the blockade.

Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who was himself released from prison in the Shalit deal, still sees an opportunity for a similar achievement. During the talks of the past few weeks, conducted under threat of a large-scale Israeli military operation in Gaza, the Egyptians say both sides have begun showing more flexibility. But what happens next depends on Sinwar. Will he give up the Israelis, whom he’s holding as a kind of personal insurance policy should the conflict escalate?

Another problem is the Palestinian Authority’s role in any solution. So far, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t displayed a smidgen of empathy for Gaza’s distress. He is blaming Israel, even as he tightens the economic noose around Gaza and slashes the salaries of PA employees there. America’s halting of financial aid to Palestinian organizations and cutting of funds for UNRWA, which takes care of Palestinian refugees, is worsening the crisis.

Israel’s government is hostile to the PA leadership and skeptical of its willingness to help. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman views the whole PA as a lost cause; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu focuses his fire on Abbas.

UN envoy Nikolay Mladenov is also trying to mediate between the rival Palestinian camps. Tuesday afternoon, he could be seen pacing back and forth in the parking lot of a small strip mall near the Yad Mordechai junction, feverishly coordinating moves related to the cease-fire by phone. A few hours earlier, he met in Gaza with Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ political bureau. Thursday, he went to Gaza again for another meeting with Hamas leaders.

Early this year, before weekly demonstrations near the border brought Gaza back to the headlines, the diplomatic-security cabinet held a long discussion on the Strip. Afterward, it ordered the defense establishment to preserve quiet in Gaza as much as possible, so that construction of the anti-tunnel barrier along the border could be completed by the end of 2019.

As of July 2018, this order was still in force. If an agreement is reached that significantly improves Gaza’s economic situation and solves the problem of the Israelis held in Gaza, the IDF believes it can ensure quiet.

On Friday, the Palestinians resumed demonstrating near the border. The Defense Ministry recently ordered two cargo planes with crowd-control equipment from the United States. But its effort to erect another barbed-wire fence west of the border fence has been delayed, because the Palestinians destroy it every week. And only one factory in the country, located in Netivot, makes such fencing.

Given the past week’s incidents along the border, the IDF was quicker on the trigger. “I assume that this time, we’ll be much less patient,” a senior officer in Southern Command said earlier this week. Two Palestinians, one of whom a 14-year old, were killed during the demonstrations.

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