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.
Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh gestures to the crowd as he takes part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas's founding, in Gaza City on December 14, 2015. (Emad Nassar/Flash90)
RAMALLAH — It’s hard to predict at this stage whether Israel’s decision to allow Qatar to pay the salaries of Hamas officials in Gaza is valid for July only, or whether Doha, with Israel’s consent, will continue to pay them for the next two months.
Officially, Israel refuses to comment on the measure or publicize any information about it, even though the government should be fully transparent, especially in light of the dramatic change of direction in its policy.
The government vigorously opposed Qatar paying Hamas officials’ salaries in the summer of 2014, on the eve of the 50-day war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Avigdor Liberman, the foreign minister at the time, threatened to expel Robert Serry, the UN’s envoy to the Middle East, for trying to arrange the salary payments, and Israel rejected a proposal for a ceasefire because it would have provided for the payment of the officials. How is it possible that Israel now agrees to the very same measures?
Is it conceivable that Liberman, who promised two months ago to kill Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s top official in Gaza, if the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin were not returned to Israel, is agreeing that 40,000 Hamas officials, among them Haniyeh, will receive their July salaries thanks to the Israeli government, even as Hamas continues to hold on to the bodies?
One thing needs to be said here: If the Qatari-Israeli measure really does go into effect and persists into the future, it could prevent the next war in Gaza. There is an enormous gap between a Hamas that can pay full salaries to its employees, and a group that tries every month to scrape by on almost nothing in a bid to keep the frustration and ferment at bay in Gaza. And there is quite a bit of ferment there, even after Turkey’s recent “dramatic” gesture that saw the entry of several trucks carrying humanitarian aid.
The Hamas administration’s employees have difficulty making a living, and the pressure on Hamas’s leadership to change the status quo hasn’t let up for a moment.
If the officials’ salaries are paid, Hamas’s leadership will (at least temporarily) be under pressure to avoid creating an escalation against Israel, or any other change, that could interfere with the payments. Even the top echelon of Hamas’s military wing, led by Yahya Sinwar and Muhammed Deif, would be hard-pressed to say why an escalation with Israel is necessary precisely when salaries are being paid and people have more food in their homes.
Palestinian students who support the Hamas movement take part in an election campaign rally for the student council at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 26, 2016 (AFP/Abbas Momani)
In addition to the development with the salaries, there are two considerations that could delay the next war in Gaza.
Local elections, and then general elections
First, the elections for Hamas’s top echelon, the Shura council, and the political wing have already begun. In theory, at least, Hamas’s leaders need a certain amount of calm while this kind of election campaign is in progress.
(Of course an opposite process could also take place: Someone from the military wing’s top echelon who wants to promote himself in the elections for the political wing — say Sinwar or Marwan Issa — might be tempted to think that escalation against Israel on the ground would actually serve him and his associates in Hamas’s internal elections.)
The second and more significant consideration is the possibly imminent local Palestinian elections. If there are no changes, these elections in the West Bank and Gaza, with the participation of the two rival movements, Hamas and Fatah, will be held this coming October, for the first time since the revolution in Gaza in June 2007. Each movement will supervise its own area: Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.
Hamas, which has been enjoying unusual popularity in the West Bank and remains well-supported in Gaza, has decided to participate in the elections, and to throw around its weight to ensure victory in various local councils. A war against Israel would surely disrupt that move, perhaps to the point where Hamas would lose. It is highly unlikely that Hamas would take that kind of a gamble now.
According to all the assessments and polls on the Palestinian side, the local elections will reflect an increase in Hamas’s strength. In other words, there is a better than likely chance that Fatah will lose. The question therefore, is what made the Palestinian Authority and Fatah agree to Hamas participation.
“Fatah and the Palestinian Authority underestimated Hamas and did not understand the atmosphere in Gaza,” said Khalil Shikaki, the head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and the preeminent Palestinian pollster.
“The mistaken assessment was that Hamas would not want to participate in the local elections,” Shikaki told The Times of Israel in an interview. “PA and Fatah officials thought that it would be like it was in 2012 — that Hamas would not participate in the local elections in the West Bank and would not want elections in Gaza.
Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, at his office in Ramallah, June 14, 2011 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
“There was no serious discussion about what would happen if Hamas behaved out of character. Then came the statement by Prime Minister Hamdallah and the local affairs minister that the time had come for elections, and the PA said it wanted them, and then Hamas surprisingly said that it was willing to hold elections in both places, in the West Bank and in Gaza. Hamas and the other groups in Gaza wanted to break the political isolation that they’re in.”
The local elections will in turn lead to pressure for general elections, Shikaki predicted.
“If the elections really do take place and are held successfully, there will be a large amount of pressure on Hamas and Fatah to hold general elections, for parliament and the presidency. That is one element,” he said. “The second and even more significant element is that Hamas will win renewed legitimacy as a political player in the West Bank. And that hasn’t been the case since June 2007. It will be an official and accepted political player once again.
“Third — and again, this is also a tremendously important matter — the very fact that elections are being held in the West Bank and in Gaza in the current situation means that the Hamas regime in Gaza has legitimacy, for all intents and purposes,” said Shikaki. “These consequences are inevitable, important and dramatic.”
Shikaki, whose latest poll found that approximately two-thirds of Palestinians would like PA President Mahmoud Abbas to resign, is not optimistic about Fatah’s chances in the local elections.
“Hamas will be methodical and aggressive in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “There is a total of 25 local councils there, and in light of the split in Fatah, Hamas is expected to garner significant accomplishments. Maybe not a sweeping victory in all the local councils, but definitely in most of them.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends a Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 1, 2016. (Flash90)
“There are more than 500 local councils in the West Bank,” he continued. “Fatah is split here, too, but the story is a bit different. [Hamas’s deputy political leader] Mousa Abu Marzook has already announced that Hamas would not participate officially in the local elections in the West Bank.”
In other words, no candidates who clearly belong to Hamas will run under the group’s banner.
“This tells us that a great many independent candidates will receive Hamas’s support,” Shikaki said. “I estimate — and I did not conduct a poll on this topic — that Fatah will win in many of the rural areas. It can win in the large cities of the northern West Bank such as Tulkarem, Jenin and Qalqilya. The independent candidates who receive Hamas’s support have a good chance in Nablus and the cities south of it, considering the residents’ dissatisfaction with the PA.
“In all, my estimation is that Hamas and the independent candidates will have a better chance of defeating Fatah in the large cities,” he concluded.
Why should the Israeli public care at all whether local elections are held in the territories? The answer is simple: The elections will provide a pretty clear indication of what to expect in general elections. So while a war in Gaza may not be in the offing, Hamas’s strength is only expected to increase. And the Israeli public emphatically needs to be concerned about that.