The event with the greatest strategic significance this week in the Gaza Strip wasn’t the destruction of Islamic Jihad’s attack tunnel by the Israeli army on Monday. It was the start of the implementation of the Palestinian reconciliation agreement two days later.
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Hamas’ willingness to make far-reaching concessions under the agreement is evidence of the importance of the process – as is the fact that Palestinian groups have yet to try to avenge the deaths of 14 of their operatives in the tunnel’s collapse.
It seems that implementing the agreement is critical enough to Hamas’ leaders for them to rein in Islamic Jihad. The question being raised by Israeli security officials is whether this restraint will hold up over time, or whether the organization will still try to carry out a revenge attack even at the risk of escalating the tensions with Israel and seeing the reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority collapse.
Israel has treated the reconciliation deal with understandable skepticism, given the failure of such reconciliation talks in the past and the hostility between the two Palestinian camps. All last month Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took a suspicious and cautious approach to implementing the agreement and still hasn’t lifted the sanctions that he imposed in recent months on Gaza. These include reducing funding for electricity and cutting the salaries of PA government workers in the Strip.
But now it seems that something in Hamas’ policy has changed. This could of course be a result of the heavy pressure being applied by Egypt and the pressure on the group’s leaders since the 2014 Gaza war. The group’s external support system has gradually weakened.
Still, it seems that the main reason is internal. Daily life in the Strip has become so oppressive that Hamas needs to present the people with some kind of achievement, even if it means giving up certain symbols of sovereignty and reducing the long-standing tension with the PA. An easing of the blockade on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing would be the first encouraging sign for Gazans after an especially difficult period.
Things in Rafah are proceeding more slowly than expected. It is now estimated that the PA will take responsibility for the crossing only in about two weeks, at best. But this week PA policemen have been deployed on the Palestinian side of the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings along the border with Israel.
Even more important, perhaps, is that Hamas has dismantled its own checkpoint en route to the Erez crossing, at which its people would question every resident who was permitted to cross into Israel. At the same time, the Gaza government has yielded to the PA the right to collect millions of shekels in customs duties at the crossings. These are moves that cannot be ignored, Israeli suspicions notwithstanding.
There is still a possibility that the process will fail, or that Abbas will choose merely a “minor” reconciliation involving limited gestures. There are also theories saying that the entire agreement is a sophisticated Hamas ploy against the PA. That is, the organization would give up the burden of running Gaza, and meanwhile gradually take over PA institutions and eventually try to seize control of the West Bank from the PA. All these question marks still exist.
On the other hand, it seems the fact that two days have gone by without a response to the most serious Palestinian military failure in three years reinforces the believe that broader considerations are at work. The IDF, for its part, can’t take any chances. That’s the reason the high alert in the Southern Command is continuing, even though almost no restrictions on freedom of movement have been imposed on residents of Gaza border communities.
Israel is of course taking into account that Islamic Jihad’s reaction may come later. That’s what happened in the north under pretty similar circumstances nearly three years ago. Hezbollah in January 2015 accused Israel of assassinating Islamic Jihad’s Jihad Mughniyeh and an Iranian general near Quneitra on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. The organization retaliated only 10 days later with an antitank-missile barrage that killed an Israeli soldier and an officer at the foot of Mount Dov near the Lebanese border.