Analysis

Israel's Concessions to Hamas Are Just the Prelude

The government is prepared to go far to achieve quiet in the south until the April 9 election – but not as far as it'll go on after it

The Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza, March 31, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

Six rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel on Sunday. First, a bit after midnight, five rockets landed in open areas in the western Negev. Then the sirens sounded again in the northern Negev, but it turned out that the rocket fired had landed in Palestinian territory.

Despite the fire – Islamic Jihad was apparently responsible for the first volley – Israel on Sunday morning opened the Erez Crossing (for Gaza residents with exit permits), as well as the Kerem Shalom crossing (for the movement of goods), and allowed fishing to resume off the Gaza coast.

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The government is prepared to go far to achieve quiet in the south until the April 9 election. Not a single official announcement – by the Israel Defense Forces spokesman or the Prime Minister’s Office – has been issued about easing conditions in the Strip. The Defense Ministry wouldn’t even answer a question about how large the fishing limits off Gaza are.

>> Gaza protests: Israel will reward Hamas for its restraint, but any incident could reignite the flames | Analysis ■ Hamas' troubles don't stop at the Isralei border | Analysis

Israeli voters will have to make do with the general statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, who said Israel is “prepared for any scenario” in the south, or the slightly more detailed remarks by the Likud campaign spokesman, who told Army Radio, “If there’s no choice, we may launch a military operation.”

The operation, one assumes, will be launched by the State of Israel and the IDF, not Likud headquarters. But the trend is clear; chances of a military operation before the elections don’t seem great unless Hamas insists on dragging Netanyahu into one. Netanyahu seems to believe that a conflagration on the Gaza border could jeopardize his success in the elections. Plenty has been written in recent years about his lack of faith in a large-scale military operation in Gaza.

A masked Palestinian boy reacts to tear gas fired by Israeli forces during a protest marking Land Day and the first anniversary of a surge of border protests, at the Israel-Gaza border fence east of Gaza City March 30, 2019.
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

The Israeli easing of restrictions was a response to Hamas’ relative restraint in the demonstrations along the border fence on Saturday, during which three young men were nevertheless killed by army fire, during incidents that included attempts to damage the fence and cross it. Hamas, for its part, is meant to stop the violent nightly disturbances along the border and reduce the throwing of grenades, explosive devices and the launching of incendiary balloons and kites. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar declared, however, that the March of Return would continue every Friday as planned.

But the main issue on the agenda relates to the package of economic steps that will be declared for the Strip after the election. Here the ideas will have to be combined with “the deal of the century” that the U.S. administration is meant to propose for the Israeli-Palestinian track. It seems like one of the ideas being considered is to take the plan’s Gaza appendix and implement it first.

Many of the proposals being mentioned now to rehabilitate Gaza were raised more than two years ago, in what was dubbed the “Poly plan,” after former Israeli Coordinator of Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav (“Poly”) Mordechai.

At the time there was talk of injecting about $1.5 billion into Gaza, mostly from the Gulf States, but with American and European support. Among the proposals were: Establishing industrial zones for Palestinian labor in Egyptian Rafah; building solar farms along the Gaza border; the upgrading of the Gaza’s gas and electricity infrastructure with Israeli assistance; the construction of desalination plants; the construction of a short railway connecting the Erez checkpoint with northern Gaza City (which would allow swifter passage of goods through Ashdod Port), and possibly constructing a dock for the Palestinians at the El-Arish Port in Sinai.

Now these ideas are again on the agenda, since, after nearly two years of delays, it seems the Trump administration is close to actually submitting its peace plan. This, even though the Palestinian Authority has declared from every possible platform, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the Arab League conference in Morocco on Sunday, that the plan is dangerous, it favors Israel, and cannot be accepted.

Palestinians demonstrate to mark the first anniversary of the March of Return protests, Israel-Gaza border, March 30, 2019.
Mahmud Hams/AFP

However, if the administration is determined to try, it could influence the Israeli political arena. Netanyahu may now be labeling the Kahol Lavan party as “the weak left” and declared over the weekend that he wouldn’t appoint Benny Gantz defense minister in his government. But the circumstances could change after the election. Just as Gideon Sa’ar was once enemy No. 1 in the Prime Minister’s Residence and now appears at Netanyahu’s side in Likud election posters, Netanyahu may need to seek a more moderate coalition if U.S. President Donald Trump is serious about his peace proposals.

Meanwhile, it’s becoming clearer why Egypt is so willing to go out on a limb to reach an agreement in Gaza that could help Netanyahu safely get through the elections. Trump announced that he has invited Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to visit the United States soon. Their meeting will take place only a few days before the Egyptian parliament is meant to vote on controversial changes to the country’s constitution that would allow Sissi to remain president until 2034.

Sissi’s opponents were hoping for international pressure to foil this process but Trump, by inviting Sissi to Washington, is doing the opposite. And who is Egypt’s biggest advocate in the United States? Why Netanyahu, of course; just as the American media reported that the Israeli premier helped reduce the tensions between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family after it was revealed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

When we add to this the many reports in foreign media about Israeli air strikes in Sinai in the service of the Egyptian struggle with the Islamic State there, one can only guess at the depth of the alliance between Jerusalem and Cairo and understand why Egypt is investing so much in achieving a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas.

File Photo: Iron Dome intercepts a rocket from Gaza, March 28, 2019.
Ilan Assayag