Hamas pragmatism in Gaza handover hints at a new future for the Strip

Hamas pragmatism in Gaza handover hints at a new future for the Strip

The terror group surprises observers by giving up control over the inflow of people and goods into the coastal enclave, sticking to the unity deal agreed with the PA

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A picture taken on November 1, 2017, shows the sun setting over a minaret in Gaza City. / AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX
A picture taken on November 1, 2017, shows the sun setting over a minaret in Gaza City. / AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX

History was made in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday. For the first time in a decade, control of all the border crossings was transferred by Hamas to the Palestinian Authority.

This step could have dramatic implications for the future, primarily for those living in the coastal enclave, but also for Israel.

This is the first concrete step of the reconciliation deal between Fatah, which runs the PA, and the Hamas terror organization with controls the Gaza Strip. Perhaps the tremendous skepticism over the chances of rapprochement between the two groups needs to be reexamined.

Improvement for Gazans crossing the border

For ten years the residents of the strip who wanted to leave through the Erez crossing had to pass through two checkpoints before they even reached the Israeli checkpoint. The southern-most checkpoint, known as four-four, was set up by Hamas shortly after it seized control in 2007’s bloody coup. The next checkpoint, “five-five,” was run by PA forces right at the entrance to the Erez crossing.

The problem for the residents was not with the PA crossing, which was operated in coordination with the Israelis for entry to and from Israel. It was the Hamas checkpoint that caused them difficulties. Security personnel from the terror organization would check every person as they passed through, whether they were leaving for Israel or entering back into Gaza.

Firstly, they carried out a routine examination of all belongings, partly to prevent alcohol or other banned substances entering the strip. Then there was a total security check; asking about the purpose of the visit, to or from the Gaza Strip. Those with various permits were nevertheless subject to full questioning to find out if they were Israeli agents, collaborators or received special treatment because they were associated with the PA. In other words people leaving the Strip were doubly suspect — as spies for Israel or spies for the PA.

Hamas intelligence officers also operated at this checkpoint, applying unlimited pressure on those going through to try to persuade them to give information about what was going on in Israel, or to turn them into voluntary spies in Israeli territory.

On Wednesday Hamas took down that checkpoint.

Palestinians have their IDs checked at a passport control station held by the Palestinian Authority at the northern entrance of the Gaza Strip just after the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, on November 1, 2017 (/ AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

One of the residents of Gaza speaking with the Times of Israel said, “This was a huge surprise for us. We didn’t believe that they would take down four-four.”

Another resident who passed through the Erez crossing on Wednesday couldn’t hide his happiness. “There is no more fear,” he said. “No more four-four, no more security checks. It is finished.”

The same thing happened at the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south. Hamas took down its checkpoint, which was just outside the crossing and was there for both security and economic purposes. Every truck that passed through the crossing was forced to pay taxes to the Hamas coffers. This provided a huge financial boost to Hamas of tens of millions of shekels a year, if not more.

Palestinian workers inspect trucks carrying supplies after its arrival to Rafah through the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip on November 1, 2017. Hamas handed over control of the Gaza Strip’s borders with Egypt and Israel to the Palestinian Authority in the first key test of a landmark Palestinian reconciliation accord agreed last month.( AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Now Hamas has removed its checkpoint and stopped collecting the taxes.

Control of the crossings was transferred to the Palestinian Authority (which was already deployed at the crossings, but had no contact with the Hamas checkpoint). From now, the PA is the sole authority that will collect taxes on imports.

Hamas removes its staff from the crossings

Another step which surprised many was that Hamas removed its officers from those crossings entirely. According to the initial agreement signed in Cairo, the officers were to stay in their positions until a solution had been reached about the staff working for Hamas (almost 40,000 people including security forces).

However, in discussions between Egyptian Hamas and PA representatives, Hamas agreed to remove its officers from the checkpoints immediately.

Those officers who were removed are fuming at losing their jobs and don’t know how they will earn a living.

A Hamas security man walks inside a structure held by Hamas after it was deactivated at the northern entrance of the Gaza Strip just after the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, on November 1, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS_

This concession came from the top of the organization in Gaza, and was not popular with many people, even within Hamas. Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, former deputy chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, directly criticized the move and posted on Facebook that the way in which the officers were removed was not dignified. He hinted that the understandings from Tuesday night contradict those that were agreed upon in Cairo, and therefore, “are unlikely to succeed.”

True, there are still many reasons for skepticism and lots of question marks. The PA has not yet removed the sanctions it placed on the Strip.

Additionally, to Hamas’s anger, security coordination between Israel and the PA in the West Bank was renewed and has returned to what it was in the past.

The best proof of this was this week’s meeting between leaders of the PA and Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon along with Yoav Mordechai, head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

At the same time, the PA is continuing to make arrests of Islamic extremists.

But it is very likely that we are at the beginning of a new era. In other words, reconciliation of a “Palestinian” kind — without forcing Hamas’s Gaza troops to disarm, without stopping terror attacks in the West Bank, but with the PA ruling the citizens of Gaza and perhaps, in the slightly more distant future, elections.

Portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas hang at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on November 1, 2017. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

It must be admitted that Hamas has made dramatic concessions on the ground in the fields of security and finance. It also succeeded in containing the response to the harsh incident for the Palestinians — Israel’s destruction of the Islamic Jihad terror tunnel on Monday, which killed nine terrorists with five still unaccounted for. Such an incident in the past would have most likely led to a massive escalation.

All of this hints that perhaps, just perhaps, this time there has been a real change of goal by Hamas. Its leadership is interested in reconciliation, there is no doubt about that, and the question now is only what that will look like.

How will Israel respond?

What will Israel do about the new reality it faces? Will it continue to distinguish between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with regard to allowing patients to enter Israel? What about letting workers into Israel? Will the number of permits to cross through Erez into Israel be increased now that border crossing arrangements have changed?

Already on Wednesday Mordechai instructed the head of Israel’s Gaza District Coordination and Liaison Office to hold a meeting with representatives of the PA to discuss the operating of the crossings on the border with the Gaza Strip.

It may be that this step of improving of the crossings, and the promised reopening of the Rafah crossing to Egypt in a couple of weeks, will lead to a real economic improvement in the Strip. The humanitarian crisis could have led to another war with Israel.

And yet, as the tunnel incident reminds us, Hamas and Islamic Jihad evidently continue to dig attack tunnels and build rockets.

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