What’s behind Jerusalem’s tepid condemnation of Palestinian unity
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AnalysisHamas has given no hint it will disarm or renounce terror

What’s behind Jerusalem’s tepid condemnation of Palestinian unity

Relatively muted Israeli criticism of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation is likely due to American and Egyptian investment in it -- and the dire state of Gaza

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Fatah's Azzam al-Ahmad, right, and Saleh al-Arouri, left, of Hamas shake hands after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ostensibly ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Fatah's Azzam al-Ahmad, right, and Saleh al-Arouri, left, of Hamas shake hands after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ostensibly ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

As much of the international community celebrated the reconciliation deal Fatah and Hamas signed Thursday in Cairo, Israeli officials displayed typical skepticism, and were quick to stress that Hamas remains a bloodthirsty terrorist organization and that Palestinian “unity” distances the prospects for peace.

But as opposed to the last serious attempt at reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions in 2014 — when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah to dissolve the unity government — this time around, thus far, the criticism from Jerusalem is relatively subdued.

On Thursday evening, many Israeli politicians weighed in on the US’s decision to leave UNESCO, but only a handful commented publicly on the Fatah-Hamas deal.

Netanyahu was one of those few. As someone who has campaigned vigorously on the promise to be “tough against Hamas,” he cannot possibly embrace any arrangement that doesn’t include the group’s total surrender. Indeed, many questions remain unanswered — notably, what will happen to Hamas’s 25,000-strong terrorist army, its weapons, attack tunnels and rocket factories — making it easy for Israeli officials to pour cold water on a deal United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hailed as encouraging, and many Arab states celebrated as a crucial first step toward peace.

Education Minister Nafatli Bennett speaks during a Jewish Home party conference at Bar Ilan University on September 26, 2017 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Israel opposes any reconciliation in which the terrorist organization Hamas does not disarm and end its war to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday evening. “There is nothing Israel wants more than peace with all our neighbors. Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas makes peace much harder to achieve.”

He added: “Reconciling with mass-murderers is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Say yes to peace and no to joining hands with Hamas.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, said the Fatah-Hamas deal turns the PA into “a terror authority,” and urged Israel to sever all connections with it. “From now, any Israeli cooperation with Abbas is cooperation with Hamas,” he said.

Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud), a would-be Netanyahu successor, also issued a critical statement, noting that senior Hamas official Salah al-Arouri, who signed Thursday’s agreement, declared in Cairo that its goal was to strengthen the Palestinians’ ability to “work together against the Zionist enterprise.” The unity pact, Katz said, was “but a convenient cover for Hamas to continue its existence and activity as a terror organization while relinquishing civilian responsibility for the Gaza Strip.”

Abbas’s readiness to partner with people like Arouri and Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, “is cause for concern,” he said.

Hamas representative Saleh al-Arouri speaks after signing a reconciliation deal with senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, during a short ceremony at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Indeed, Arouri’s belligerent statement and the fact that it remains unclear — skeptics will say doubtful — that Hamas will disarm give Israel ample cause for concern. Handing civil responsibility back to the PA takes a lot of financial pressure off of Hamas, freeing the group to focus its efforts on beefing up its terror infrastructure and planning more attacks on Israelis.

A planned arrangement that sees PA officials who oversee Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt constantly shuttle from the West Bank to Gaza and back again further spurs Israeli security concerns.

And yet, there are several reasons why Israel’s reaction to the deal has been relatively restrained, at least so far.

For one, Hamas making concessions — any concession — is a sign the organization is in trouble. That’s good news for Israel.

Moreover, handing civilian control over Gaza to the PA will improve access to the coastal strip and is thus expected to significantly ease the dire humanitarian crisis that has been raging there the last few months. That is clearly in Israel’s interest. With Abbas imposing sanctions on the Strip that saw electricity supplies cut back drastically, the situation in Gaza had become so difficult that many international observers, including Israeli officials, have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe and looming war as a result.

It was for this reason that the US was adamant about returning control of Gaza to the PA.

US President Donald Trump's peace envoy Jason Greenblatt (L) tours a Hamas terror tunnel near the Gaza Strip with Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories Yoav 'Poly' Mordechai on August 30, 2017. (COGAT Spokesperson's Office)
US President Donald Trump’s peace envoy Jason Greenblatt (L) tours a Hamas terror tunnel near the Gaza Strip with Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories Yoav ‘Poly’ Mordechai on August 30, 2017. (COGAT Spokesperson’s Office)

“The time has come to stop monitoring the situation in Gaza and start changing the situation in Gaza,” White House peace envoy Jason Greenblatt said last month.

The US “welcomes efforts to create the conditions for the Palestinian Authority to fully assume its responsibilities in Gaza,” he further said on October 2, calling on Israel and international donors to “try to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.”

Like Jerusalem, Washington has stressed that Hamas must recognize Israel and commit to nonviolence. But its general empathy for the Palestinian unity deal that will see Abbas take control of Gaza is pretty obvious. Israel, eager not to contradict the Trump administration, thus must think twice before attacking too vigorously a process that has the White House’s tentative approval.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, right, in New York on September 19, 2017 (Avi Ohayun)

Similarly, Israel must be careful not to antagonize Egypt, which put much effort into, and staked much of its prestige on, making the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal happen. Jerusalem and Cairo may not agree on everything when it comes to the Palestinian question, but Netanyahu’s warming relationship with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is too important for Israel to throw away in besmirching a deal Cairo worked so hard to achieve.

On Thursday night, Likud MK Yehudah Glick was the only Israeli official who had anything good to say about the Palestinian unity arrangement.

MK Yehudah Glick prays during a Likud party event ahead of Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, on September 25, 2017 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“The fact that Hamas in Gaza pushed for the deal shows they’re weak — very good,” he wrote on Facebook, offering a brief list of the deal’s positive and negative aspects. “The fact that the strong man in the region is Sissi and not [Syrian President Bashar] Assad or [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan — pretty good. The fact that in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] we are the ones determining what happens and not some other international player — pretty good.”

The fact that the humanitarian crisis persists in Gaza is also “pretty bad,” he wrote.

Glick added, however, that Hamas and Fatah “have the same objectives and support terror in equal measure.” And that, he concluded, is “very bad.”

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