Analysis |

Israel's Middle East Allies Have Changed the Equation With Hamas

In the past, deterrence in Gaza was based on the assumption that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the rest of the Palestinian organizations knew what was waiting for them — but there are new factors at play now

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A picture of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in the Gaza Strip, in May.
A picture of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in the Gaza Strip, in May.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED - AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Israel, as we know, does not negotiate with terrorists. But terms and conditions may apply. If, for instance, the country must put an end to rocket launches or explosive balloons, or if it needs to wrap up a military operation with a “decisive victory” and of course if it wants the bodies of Israeli soldiers or captives held in Gaza, then it can negotiate.

These would not be, God forbid, direct negotiations, in which Israeli army officers meet face-to-face with leaders of the organization, but through intermediaries. The rules of the game that have been created between Israel and Hamas have clearly dictated how these negotiations are to be legitimized. These rules developed over time, became more flexible, more intricate, until it’s no longer entirely clear why they haven’t just set up a direct line between the office of Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh or Gaza’s Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and the offices of Israel’s prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff.

Israel used to have an ironclad rule: quiet will be met with quiet. But there never was total quiet, and any incident automatically sparked a response in the form of aerial bombardment, sometimes in order to destroy a “source of the launch,” others to assassinate a “senior figure” or just to “send a message.” Sometimes it took the form of an extensive operation, lasting days. That was how the balance of deterrence worked, based on the assumption that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the rest of the Palestinian organizations knew what was waiting for them, and only needed a reminder from time to time to maintain the sense of dread.

These negotiations mutated ahead of the holidays, and a new strain was born. It can be called “preventative negotiations.” Its ostensible purpose is to warn of and threaten the terrible blow that would strike Gaza if its missiles were launched at Jerusalem. On the face of it, according to the doctrine of deterrence, such negotiations are unnecessary. After all, Gaza needs no reminder of the destructive outcome of the fighting last May. The inhabitants of the Strip should have taken to heart the sharply worded remarks by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “We have changed the equation, not only for the days of the operation and during the operation, but for the future as well. If Hamas thinks that we will tolerate a drizzle of rockets, it is wrong. We will respond with a new level of force to every instance of aggression against the Gaza border and communities anywhere else in Israel. The way it was in the past is not the way it will be in the future.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett adopted the slogan, but changed it slightly. It appears he decided that the way it was in the past should not be the way it is. In March, when the dates of Passover and Ramadan were already determined, he met with Egyptian President Abel Fattah al-Sissi and with the ruler of the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Zayed, and laid out the need to rein in Hamas. Egypt took it upon itself to conduct talks with Hamas and, according to reports in the Arab media, presented Hamas with the options it had. “The Bennett government is at its weakest. You only have two options. You can escalate the situation and cause this government to strongly attack in order to withstand criticism from the right and survive politically, or you can calm things down and mark up achievements in the economic and diplomatic spheres,” Egyptian intelligence officials explained to Hamas leaders.

To show their seriousness, the Egyptians warned that if the situation did not remain calm, it could take a toll on the reconstruction of Gaza. Among other things, the flow of construction materials to Gaza would cease and work permits would not be issued for Egyptian laborers and engineers working on the reconstruction. Egypt demanded that Hamas and Islamic Jihad release a joint declaration stating that they do not seek an escalation. The organizations rejected this demand, but they did clarify that, depending on Israel’s actions on the Temple Mount, they did not intend to escalate hostilities.

At the same time, the Egyptian negotiators, including the Egyptian president’s son Mahmoud al-Sissi, explained to their Israeli interlocutors that Israel must give Hamas “something” to prevent a skirmish – for example, releasing some 400 Palestinians arrested during clashes on the Temple Mount. Hamas had other demands, such as stopping military actions in the Jenin refugee camp; from its perspective there is no difference between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, or between Jerusalem and Gaza.

The Egyptians convey these messages to Israel, as well as a description of the actions Hamas is taking to prevent rocket fire from rival groups. Among other things, it was reported that Hamas is taking a “harsh tone” toward Islamic Jihad to stop rocket fire at Israel, and that potential missile firers had been arrested. And indeed, after the firing of a rocket on Sderot last week, Islamic Jihad was quick to inform Egypt that it was not responsible.

These negotiations take place continuously. There is a meeting to assess the situation each day, in which Egypt also participates. Israel made its decision to close the Erez crossing “until further notice” in response to the rockets on Sderot after a discussion with Egypt, which continues to operate the Saladin and Rafah crossings as usual.

As opposed to previous years, in which negotiations with Hamas took place between Israel and Egypt, the connection Hamas created last year between Jerusalem and Gaza requires Israel to take the positions of other countries into account, such as Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and even Turkey. It seems that Hamas knows how to take advantage of the new diplomatic leverage at its disposal since the signing of the Abraham Accords to turn the balance of military deterrence into a balance of diplomatic deterrence.

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