Analysis

Palestinian Reconciliation Shows That Hamas Sees Something Israel Doesn't

The desire not to return to an unstoppable deterioration in ties with Abbas, like the one that led to the 2014 war, is what led Hamas' decision on reconciliation

Fatah's Azzam al-Ahmad speaks with Hamas' Saleh al-Aruri after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo, Egypt, October 12, 2017.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

There is something of a gap between Thursday’s festive announcement of reconciliation in Cairo after the signing of the agreement between Fatah and Hamas, and the official responses to the pact: the restrained one from Ramallah and the cool one from Jerusalem. The announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that what was achieved in Cairo “strengthens and spurs” efforts to end the rift among the Palestinian people. While Abbas spoke of a great step forward but was careful not to go into details, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded action from the Palestinians, mainly from Hamas, to meet the conditions of the Quartet.

And still, the tone of Netanyahu’s statement released at the end of the holiday lacks the sharp belligerence of his previous response to progress in the reconciliation talks about a week ago. Netanyahu’s response this time was published after a round of consultations with the top security brass, who recommended restraint. It is unclear whether the new tone will also be binding on the government ministers and all members of the coalition. We’ll apparently have to wait for the responses of Minister Zeev Elkin and MK Nava Boker.

We may assume that the more moderate Israeli approach stems from two main considerations. The first is connected to Egypt and the second to the Palestinian Authority. The agreement is a clear Egyptian achievement. It is a policy led by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi that is now bearing its first fruits.

Israel has a clear interest in strengthening Egypt’s regional standing, both because of the close strategic coordination between the two countries and in light of the influence of Cairo on the Palestinians. The tense relationship between the Egyptian generals and senior Hamas officials in Gaza were among the main reasons for the inability to quickly end the 2014 war in Gaza.

And while Israel’s ties with the Palestinian Authority are complicated – Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described its actions as a strategic threat of the first order just a year ago – Netanyahu is the one who decided to go with the flow in terms of Abbas’ moves.

When Abbas restricted electricity to Gaza in the spring, Abbas was sure he would wear down Hamas opposition and now it seems he did. Under these circumstances, it would be hard for Israel to appear to be sabotaging or disparaging his efforts. And in the background is probably another issue: According to the Arab media, a security delegation from Israel was in Cairo this week. There may be an opportunity here for a breakthrough on the return of the bodies of two IDF soldiers held by Hamas and information on the fate of two missing Israeli civilians.

From what has been made public so far, Abbas is to discuss lifting the sanctions on the Gaza Strip (cutbacks in electricity and salaries of local PA employees) within two weeks. Another key clause involves the deployment of 3,000 members of the PA Presidential Guard at the border crossings between the Strip and Egypt and Israel. This is a significant development, if it happens.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how Hamas will agree to restrictions of any kind on its military power, the weapons in its possession or the underground tunnels that its men continue to dig.

Other questions, like the payment of salaries to PA officials in the Gaza Strip or the way the new government ministries will operate, are to be discussed by the two sides in the coming months.

Shimon Peres once described the Oslo Accords as a long story to which a happy ending was appended right from the start. The architects of Oslo were aware of the almost impossible obstacles in their way, and so they largely chose to begin with general understandings only. The negotiators for the PA and Hamas chose a similar approach. The details will come later. It still remains to be seen whether in this case a happy ending awaits the Palestinians, or whether the fate of this agreement will be like that of Oslo and previous attempts at reconciliation in the past decade.

Gazan economy, Israeli security

The latest issue of the Israel Defense Forces magazine Bamahane includes an article written by senior officials in the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, before the Palestinian reconciliation agreement was signed. The authors, the coordinator himself, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and his adviser on Palestinian affairs, Col. Michael Milstein, write that the last war in Gaza “sharpened Israel’s and Hamas’ understanding of the Gordian knot between the civilian economic situation in Gaza and the security reality.”

That concept had not been dominant in military and political circles in Israel before the war, when Israel still looked at Gaza through a military lens. Today, according to the article, this concept has become central, out of an understanding that difficulty has developed in maintaining reasonable civilian and economic life in the Strip for the medium- and long-term.

According to the authors, Israel is no longer focusing solely on the six brigades of the Hamas military wing in Gaza, but also on the two million people who live there, because Israel realizes the direct implications for its own security.

Mordechai took up his post less than a year after the last war broke out. Milstein was still serving in Military Intelligence during the war. They both hold to MI’s conclusion that the last conflict was not planned in advance, but deteriorated to that point without either side wanting the fighting or being prepared for it.

That happened, they say, due to a combination of a heightening crisis between the PA and Hamas (in fact, an earlier version of the crisis between them this year) because of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas in Gush Etzion about a month before the fighting broke out, and, finally, because of localized escalation of tensions between the IDF and extreme Islamist groups in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas wrongly interpreted those localized tensions as preparations for an Israeli offensive. The conflict, they write, broke out because of a “miscalculation and mutual lack of strategic clarity.”

In the opinion of the authors, a deterioration of the civilian situation in the West Bank due to a severe crisis with Israel could lead to a clash with the Palestinian Authority that would radiate to Gaza as well. That seems to be another reason the defense establishment opposes pressure by politicians to impose broader collective punishment following terror attacks. 

Until internal or external conditions are made possible for a fundamental change in the situation in the Gaza Strip, the article’s authors recommend that Israel continue to focus at the same time on “maintaining the fabric of life of the inhabitants of the region, along with preventing Hamas from becoming stronger militarily.” Mordechai and Milstein believe Hamas still attaches major significance to its governing project in Gaza and does not intend to give it up entirely.

Precisely in the context of the signing in Cairo on Thursday, it seems that the authors have hit the nail on the head in terms of the considerations that led to the Hamas decision on reconciliation: the desire not to return to an unstoppable deterioration in ties with the PA, like the one that led to the 2014 war with Israel and the resultant massive destruction in the Gaza Strip.

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' leader in the Gaza Strip, taking part in a meeting with Egyptian intelligence officers, Gaza City, October 3, 2017.
Khalil Hamra/AP

Interestingly, the leader of the pragmatic approach in Hamas under the current circumstances is the organization’s leader in the Strip, Yahya Sinwar – that same terrorist in a suit who was released from Israeli prison in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in 2011, and presented here initially as a proponent of a harsh, uncompromising line.

It’s too soon to predict how things will develop, but this is the time to recall what Ariel Sharon, with all due attention to the differences, said at the time about the sharp transition from the opposition to the prime minister’s chair: Things you see from there, you don’t see from here.