It took four consecutive rounds of voting but this week, Yahya Sinwar managed to get reelected as the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The most sensitive time in an election is always the interval between the closing of polls and the completion of the vote count. It is precisely then that things tend to change.
It seems that things ultimately worked out on Wednesday to Sinwar’s satisfaction. The challenge from Nizar Awadallah, a representative of the veteran generation of the movement, was blocked this time, even if that took a great deal of effort.
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The difficulties Sinwar faced was met with a certain amount of surprise in the Israeli defense establishment. Released from Israeli prison in 2011, as part of the deal to free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after having spent about 20 years there for murder of suspected collaborators, Sinwar is held in considerable esteem by Israeli intelligence people. He is described as a determined ideological enemy but also as someone who has recently adopted a relatively pragmatic line.
The continued rule by Hamas in the Gaza Strip depends on rehabilitation of the civilian infrastructure and improvements in everyday life. To achieve these goals, Sinwar is prepared to suspend most of the activities aimed at resistance ("muqawama") to Israel – reducing the military friction until there are better circumstances for the struggle.
An area of shared interests has emerged here between Israel and Hamas, a space in which the two sides can maneuver. That said, there is also a disturbing Achilles heel: the problem of the Israelis who are held captive or missing in action in Gaza.
The price Hamas is demanding is higher than what Israel is prepared to pay for the bodies of two dead soldiers and two living civilians, whose families come from underprivileged communities and are not able to apply real pressure to the government. Absent a solution to the humanitarian problem, progress on the civilian projects in Gaza is limited.
This was also one of Sinwar’s weak points as he faced reelection. Dr. Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told Haaretz that Sinwar’s razor-thin, belated victory is like an umpire’s yellow warning card held up to him by the voters and members of his movement. Milstein, a reserve colonel who in the past served as head of the Palestinian arena in the Intelligence Corps, believes that the election result expresses disappointment in the slow pace of the improvement of life in the Gaza Strip.
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“The Marches of Return at the border fence and the launching of the explosive and incendiary balloons into the Negev achieved nothing,” Milstein said. “It is a fact that Sinwar had to abandon them more than a year ago. There was also an expression here of the accumulated anger among the veteran generation in Hamas, whom Sinwar and the people of the military wing around him have shunted aside. And Sinwar himself is no spring chicken. He is 59. It isn’t easy at his age to change but probably he will have to evince more flexibility and take the criticism into account, in the wake of the signals he has received.”
The intricate procedures of the elections in the Hamas institutions are integrated into the main initiative taking shape in the Palestinian arena – the agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas about reconciliation and, in their wake, the upcoming joint election to the parliament and the presidency. As of now, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has not heeded the Israeli warnings that the elections may culminate in a Hamas victory and the gradual integration of his rivals into the territories of the West Bank.
The focus on the depredations of the coronavirus in the media and among the public in Israel distracted attention from the serious crisis that erupted in Gaza last year. Last May, against the backdrop of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declarations concerning annexation and the full backing from then-President Donald Trump, the PA suspended its security and civil coordination with Israel. At the same time, the economic distress there deepened because of the disagreement with Israel and the United States over Palestinian aid to security prisoners.
Still, the relative security quiet was maintained: In 2020 three Israelis were killed in terror attacks that originated in the West Bank. In the wake of Joe Biden’s victory in the American presidential election last November, the PA reopened its channels of communication and coordination with Israel.
Abbas made it safely through this past year, even though some of the measures he took gave rise to bafflement in his Israeli interlocutors. Even when he cut off communications, he still prevented the security organizations and Fatah from engaging in terror. In the Israeli defense establishment, they continue to see him as a strong leader, well in control of what happens in the PA, despite his advanced age of 85.
Nevertheless, any move made by the senior officials who are under him is inevitably part of the preparations for the day after Abbas. The period of his rule is drawing to a close, whether because of the election or biology. His potential successors are preparing accordingly.
The additional, more immediate threat to stability in the West Bank is reflected in the coronavirus. The PA, which does not yet have a regular supply of vaccinations, is dealing with a daily average of more than 2,000 new cases and about 20 deaths. Last week, with considerable delay, Israel began vaccinating the Palestinian workers in Israel proper and the West Bank settlements. However, it appears that there will have to be Israeli involvement in order to ensure the massive supply of vaccinations for all the inhabitants of the West Bank, and subsequently the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip (where the situation is less urgent due to the relative separation from Israel and Egypt).
It is difficult to talk about reining in the pandemic inside Israel without vaccinating the population of the West Bank, because of the connections between the two areas. A collapse of the Palestinian hospitals under the burden will also have security repercussions for Israel. In addition to the moral considerations, there is a clear Israeli interest in aiding the Palestinians.
On Thursday, at the last minute, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to cancel his historic visit to the United Arab Emirates. The visit had been arranged only this week, and only after heavy pressure from Netanyahu. It was aimed at marking the normalization agreement the two countries that was signed in September and leveraging it ahead of the March 23 Knesset election. However, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, his wife Sara’s hospitalization for appendicitis disrupted his plans.
The cancellation is apparently also connected to an unnecessary incident with the Jordanian royal family, which is always very sensitive about its honor and standing. On Wednesday, the Jordanian crown prince was slated to come to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. According to the Jordanians, a disagreement developed due to Israel’s refusal to approve the entry of a sizable team of bodyguards for the prince and the visit was canceled even before the prince arrived at the Allenby Bridge crossing over the Jordan River. The Jordanians responded by revoking permission for Netanyahu’s plane to fly over their territory on its way to the Gulf – and immediately afterward, the visit to the Gulf was canceled, too.
This time, Netanyahu will not be able to brandish his friendship with Donald Trump in his campaign. The help he has been given thus far by Russian President Vladimir Putin is also looking limited. In these troubled times, the alternative is visits from European leaders bowled over by the resourcefulness of the Israeli vaccination program. In the three previous election rounds over the course of the year that preceded the coronavirus crisis, we became accustomed to surprises engineered by the Likud campaign in the final stretch. The question is whether any such rabbits remain up the magician’s sleeve in this fourth round.
As of now, it appears that Netanyahu’s gamble on reopening the economy, despite the coronavirus, is justifying itself. This week saw the continuation of a steep decline in all the relevant figures: identified cases of infection, serious illness, mortality and percentage of positive tests. The effect of the mass Purim parties two weeks ago has turned out to be minor. If the current accelerated opening, from restaurants and cafes to junior high schools, has any effect, it will be felt for the most part only after the election. The tie-breaking move was provided by the vaccinations. When about 90 percent of the main at-risk group (people over the age of 50) have been vaccinated against the coronavirus or are have recovered from it, the pandemic is halted.
On Thursday the Israel Defense Forces announced that 81 percent of its soldiers are vaccinated or recovered and the estimate is that this number will rise to 85 percent within a week. The army has also declared itself the largest organization in the world to have achieved herd immunity.
This is far from being a scientific statement, but it is nevertheless encouraging. It will allow the army to cautiously return to partial routine in units that have passed the 90 percent bar for immunizations and eliminate the need to divide them into capsules. Equally encouraging is the dispatch of a large Medical Corps delegation that landed in Equatorial Guinea on Thursday to help treat hundreds wounded in ammunition explosions at a military base there. Two months ago, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, such a move would have been impossible.
The headlines in the newspapers – the opening of the economy, the success of the vaccinations, the diplomatic achievement du jour or the latest corruption scandal – change at great speed and bring excited reactions from the politicians in their wake. Apparently very little of all this affects the election. The voters hear, yawn and dither over whether even to bother showing up at the polls on March 23.