Opinion

Reconciliation in Gaza Provides Israel With an Opportunity

The primary Israeli interest is the dismantling of Hamas’ military capability in Gaza. The question is whether Egypt is strong enough to help make that happen

Hamas's new deputy leader Salah al-Arouri (seated L) and Fatah's Azzam al-Ahmad (seated R) sign a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

Fatah and Hamas have signed another reconciliation agreement. It is not the first, and it may not be the last. At the moment it seems to portend a change. Over 10 years ago, Hamas forces threw Fatah out of Gaza in a murderous civil war. Now, the Palestinian Authority, controlled by Fatah, is coming to Gaza to presumably take civilian control of the Gaza Strip. The agreement is the result of the convergence of interests of Fatah, Hamas and Egypt’s ruler, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has for years claimed he represents the Palestinian people and is empowered to negotiate in their name. But since the Fatah-Hamas breakup in 2006, it has been a hollow claim. Although appearing at international forums as the representative of the Palestinian people, all the world has known he was not in a position to make commitments in their name, and therefore could not negotiate for them. Despite his denials, he knew that. He was in need of legitimization and the agreement is intended to be a step in that direction.

Hamas’ authority in Gaza has eroded in recent years. As the result of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge and in the years since, conditions there have deteriorated dramatically. Opposition to Hamas by the local population is growing as they realize the Hamas leadership is incapable of providing relief for their suffering. Hamas has also become increasingly isolated, and the sources of overseas financial assistance seem to have dried up. And the financial support provided by Abbas has been deliberately withheld. The Hamas leadership feels it has no choice but to reach a compromise with Fatah, and seems to be prepared to turn over the administration of Gaza to the Fatah-run PA.

Without the Egyptians, the agreement probably would not have occurred. They have interests and – no less important – they have leverage over the parties. The Egyptian government is engaged in a daily battle with terrorists who are concentrated mainly in Sinai. Keeping Hamas from aiding these terrorists and providing refuge for them in the Gaza Strip is a primary aim of Egyptian policy. Obtaining Hamas’ assistance in the fight against the terror plaguing Egypt would be an added bonus.

Can the Fatah-Hamas agreement bring this about? Time will tell. Sissi is also interested in promoting Egypt’s role as a leading power in the Arab world; the agreement strengthens Egypt’s position. In order to advance its interests, Egypt has leverage. It controls the exit and entry into the Gaza Strip from Egypt, which can be a lifeline for the Gazan population and Hamas itself. It can also influence the attitude of some Arab countries toward Hamas. It can make life difficult for Hamas.

And here comes the convergence of Israeli and Egyptian interests: Israel is aiding Egypt in its fight against terrorism in Sinai. If the agreement strengthens Egypt in its battle against terror, it is also in Israel’s interests.

But the primary Israeli interest is the dismantling of Hamas’ military capability in Gaza. The stockpile of thousands of rockets in the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad constitute a constant danger to Israel’s civilian population in the south. And as the range of these rockets increases, more of Israel comes into range. Elimination of this capability should have been one of the objectives of Operation Protective Edge. The Fatah-Hamas agreement may turn out to be a first step in that direction. It may very well coincide with Egypt’s interests as well. A renewed outbreak of hostilities between Hamas and Israel is not in Egypt’s best interests.

If the agreement reached so far holds, that will be next on the agenda. Is Egypt’s leverage on Hamas sufficient to bring this about? That remains to be seen.