Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh warned Israel on Monday against military moves in the Gaza Strip, saying it would pay a heavy price for any such action. The next 24 hours, he added, would be critical in attempts to prevent an escalation.
Although the 24 hours Haniyeh allotted may stretch to 48 or even longer, Hamas and Israel both seem to be attaching great importance to Tuesday’s visit by Egyptian intelligence officers. The officers first held talks in Israel, then went to Gaza, then returned to Israel later in the day.
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Haniyeh’s threats were a response to Israeli moves, as the army has recently intensified its response to violence along the Gaza border. The launching by Gaza Palestinians of incendiary balloons and the use of explosives at nighttime demonstrations near the Israeli border are now being answered with tank shelling on Hamas positions along the border.
Hamas is presumably also worried by last week’s military muscle-flexing in which the Israeli army rehearsed rapidly moving battalions to the border with the Gaza Strip.
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Nevertheless, Hamas apparently prefers the route of indirect negotiations and will try to wring every possible concession from Israel and Egypt before escalating into a military conflict. Each side accuses the other of failing to honor the understandings they reached via Egyptian mediation in November.
According to Haniyeh, Israel is to blame. After Hamas discovered an Israeli special operations team in the Gaza town of Khan Yunis — sparking a firefight in which one Israeli officer and seven Hamas members were killed — it fired more than 500 rockets and mortars at Israel, which then suspended implementation of the understandings.
Hamas is currently making several demands. It wants the expansion of Gaza’s fishing zone to 12 miles from the coast, as promised. Israel did expand the zone in most areas, but not near its offshore gas fields.
The Islamist movement is also demanding an end to some of the restrictions on dual-use imports, such as pipes and fertilizer, which can be used either for agriculture or rocket production.
It is demanding implementation of a planned UN program to finance public works projects in Gaza, thereby providing jobs for Gazans, and to help it buy medical supplies, which the Palestinian Authority no longer pays for due to the sanctions the PA imposed on Hamas. It is also demanding an easing of restrictions at the border crossings with Israel.
For its part, Israel says Hamas hasn’t honored its commitments from November. The violence at the weekly Friday demonstrations along the border fence has continued (although recently, the level of violence has decreased). Hamas has also resumed its nighttime demonstrations on the border, which are more violent. And recently, not only has it resumed launching incendiary balloons over the border into Israel, but it has upgraded them to carry bombs.
The Egyptian delegation, headed by the deputy head of Egyptian intelligence, Amr Hanafi, will try to bridge these gaps. UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov is also involved in the talks, as is Qatari Ambassador Mohammed al-Emadi, who is also expected in Gaza.
All the parties are aware of the growing explosiveness of the situation and have two dates in mind — March 30, Land Day, which commemorates a 1976 protest by Israeli Arabs against land confiscations, but also the one-year anniversary of the start of Gazans’ weekly border protests; and the Israeli election on April 9.
There is no solution in sight to two other conflicts, which both affect and are affected by events in Gaza. The Israel Prison Service is continuing to install cellphone jammers in prison wings where Palestinian prisoners are held, despite the Israeli army’s request that the work be suspended due to its possible impact on the situation in the territories.
And the Jerusalem Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that controls the Temple Mount, announced Tuesday that it intends to keep the Temple Mount’s disputed Bab al-Rahma building at the Golden Gate open and to perform renovations there, over Israeli objections.
The Waqf has urged Muslim worshipers to hold a mass prayer protest outside the gates of the Temple Mount this Friday to replicate its success with similar protests in 2017 that led Israel to scrap a plan for metal detectors at the entrance to the mount. But this time, with the election just a month away, and it will be harder for the Netanyahu government to make a retreat from conflict on the mount.