Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Dr. Ashraf al-Qidra used the kind of phrasing familiar to anyone in Israel. “We anticipated the coronavirus outbreak in Gaza and are prepared for every scenario,” he declared on Monday after a 48-hour lockdown was imposed on the entire Gaza Strip.
The Hamas government’s drastic response to just four new confirmed cases among people who were not in quarantine facilities prompted speculation that rather than aiming to halt the spread of the disease, the measures were meant to stop the launching of incendiary balloons into Israel, as part of agreements reached between Hamas and Israel with mediation by Egypt and Qatar. Incendiary balloons started some 29 fires in Israel on Tuesday. “There is no reason for a total lockdown for just four cases,” says a Gazan journalist. “This hasn’t happened anywhere else. And this is after Hamas boasted for a long time that Gaza was free of the coronavirus.”
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The reports from Gaza say that people are adhering to the directives so far, largely because Hamas security forces are taking aggressive action against anyone who violates the lockdown. But the real test will come on Tuesday night, when Qatari envoy Mohammed al-Emadi is due to enter Gaza, despite the COVID-19 threat. Given the absence of an official report on the visit, analysts in Gaza believe the envoy’s arrival could indicate a breakthrough in the latest clashes between Israel and Hamas due to the incendiary balloons, and offer a chance to restore the calm that characterized relations between the parties since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
A week ago, Hamas presented the Egyptian delegation with a series of demands it says Israel must fulfill in order to halt the current conflict. They include reopening the Kerem Shalom crossing, expanding the fishing zone to 20 miles, increasing the amount of aid that comes from Qatar, issuing permits for 100,000 Gazans to work in Israel and an easing of conditions for the import and export of goods, including fuel. Most of these demands were included in the previous agreements reached between Hamas and Israel, but were fully or partially canceled with the outbreak of fighting.
Sources in the Palestinian Authority say Hamas is trying to exploit the political situation in Israel to obtain more gains, on the assumption that Israel has no desire to end up in a full-scale battle at this time. But while this may be a reasonable assessment, the intensity of Israel’s response is meant to make Hamas understand that in Israel, there is still a clear delineation between political tumult and the consensus surrounding the regular military response against the incendiary balloons.
On the face of it, it seems like yet another round: A conflict erupts, Egypt is called upon to mediate, Qatar agrees to pay and Israel presents its conditions for allowing the aid, the main one being a halt to the fire balloons. But these temporary solutions cannot ensure continued quiet as long as Israel and Hamas don’t come to an agreement on a long-term cease-fire. Such an agreement would require Israel to permit the construction of a seaport in Gaza or on an adjacent island, a much larger quantity of construction materials than currently allowed, the construction of power stations that would supply continuous electricity at an increased level that would enable existing factories to operate at full capacity and new factories to be built, and a significant increase of the export permits from Gaza and the number of work permits in Israel.
But Israel continues to treat Gaza as a testing ground where it employs the carrot-and-stick method, one in which the carrots are shriveled and wilted and the sticks are thick and volatile. Instead of a working plan with a clear timetable – one that relies on the strategic view that says Hamas is here to stay as a ruling force in Gaza, and as long as there is no change in the Palestinian government structure, it’s better for Israel to have a partner (even if it does not recognize that partner and is not recognized by it) that is dependent on Israel for its continued survival – Israel has adopted a confused policy.
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One the one hand, it says Hamas is responsible for everything that happens in Gaza, especially in terms of security, and on the other hand, it considers it a terrorist organization that it must act against. This policy gives rise to the many contradictions in Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis Hamas, including the readiness to transfer tens of millions of dollars to it but not to allow it to develop the economy in Gaza in a fundamental way to provide Gazanas with decent sources of livelihood. Consequently, Israel, which accuses Hamas of holding Gazans hostage to its policy, is also a significant contributor to this equation when it imposes economic sanctions on Gaza on the premise that the desperate and frustrated populace will take to the streets to oust the Hamas regime.
The temporary government in Israel has the authority to cast aside this outdated policy and implement new rules of action toward Hamas and Gazans. But the leadership that’s already preparing itself for a new election won’t dare to touch the regular “arrangement” and will keep on with the pocket money and the winks of understanding with Hamas, just as long as it doesn’t appear to have learned from its mistakes.