Keep the calm and carry on: Long-term truce in Gaza put on ice until elections

With Israel in the midst of campaign season, Hamas forced to make do with minor concessions or risk sparking a new round of violence

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.

Palestinian men clear the rubble from an airstrike at a site the Israeli military said was tied to the Hamas terror group, near Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on March 9, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Palestinian men clear the rubble from an airstrike at a site the Israeli military said was tied to the Hamas terror group, near Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on March 9, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Even after Friday’s rocket launch from the Gaza Strip and the retaliatory Israeli strike, it still appears there will be no major conflagration between Israel and Hamas until Knesset elections on April 9.

This of course depends on there being no surprises, unexpected developments or miscalculations between the sides. But both Israel and Hamas have an interest in maintaining the prevailing climate, with the former seeking stable governance in Gaza and the latter an improvement in economic conditions that will allow it to rule the Palestinian territory unimpeded.

While at the moment the economy in Gaza is in a difficult spot and continues to deteriorate, making governing more difficult for Hamas, the terror group’s leaders in the coastal enclave know that with exactly a month until elections, Israel has no intention of making major concessions to Gaza — though it may make some superficial gestures.

Such was the message relayed to Hamas by an Egyptian delegation led by Ayman Badia, the deputy chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services, which visited Gaza and Israel this week.

According to Palestinian sources, the Egyptians stressed that Benjamin Netanyahu has no desire as either prime minister or defense minister (he holds both portfolios) to undertake any dramatic moves that would lead to a calmer and more stable status quo between Israel and Hamas in Gaza while he campaigns for another term in office.

And Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar daily reported that this was, indeed, just the message the Egyptian intelligence officials heard in Tel Aviv as they met with their Israeli counterparts.

Even so, there are a number of smaller measures Israel can take to help create a sense of improvement in Gaza, and which are expected to be implemented this week.

Such steps include expanding the permitted fishing zone, increasing the supply of electricity (which currently is eight hours on, eight hours off) to Gaza, and allowing certain goods into the Strip that Israel has barred for the last two years.

Palestinians prepare explosive devices to use in nighttime clashes along the border with Israel, at a house in al-Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, on March 7, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

These “gestures” are expected to lead to a minor reprieve in violence and a ceasefire for the coming month, but little beyond that. Hamas will continue encouraging clashes on the border, the nighttime “confusion units” will likely keep operating, and it is unclear what will happen with the incendiary balloon launches into Israel.

In their meetings with Hamas leaders, the Egyptians clarified, however, they intend to push for a larger series of understandings after the upcoming elections that will lead to a dramatic improvement of the situation in Gaza, a so-called “big truce.”

Among the measures being discussed are the operation of a power line from Israel that the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority is currently preventing from carrying electricity, as well as other steps that will stabilize the economy in Gaza such as a renewed transfer of cash from Qatar to pay the salaries of Hamas civil servants.

This would require a wide-ranging agreement that would need to b supported by Egypt and consented to by Israel, despite PA opposition. It all also assumes that Netanyahu is both reelected and maintains his current policy of diplomatically isolating the PA while adopting economic measures vis-a-vis Hamas — none of which is certain.

Silent partners

At this point, Ismail Haniyeh, Yahya Sinwar and their fellow Hamas leaders are not interested in an escalation of violence, as there are a number of achievements they would like to preserve which until recently sounded like science fiction or fake news from their perspective.

Egypt, for example, repeatedly said over the years that it would not allow the Rafah border crossing to operate in the absence of PA officials, yet is now doing so without a second thought while the Palestinian side is operated by Hamas. The Egyptian delegation even visited there this week.

Additionally, Hamas (or officials on its behalf) is operating the Kerem Shalom crossing, where goods enter the Gaza Strip from Israel and members of the terror group collect taxes on the merchandise that passes through.

A Hamas border control officer verifies the travel documents of a Muslim pilgrim waiting at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on March 3, 2019, before crossing to depart for the Muslim holy city of Mecca to perform the ritual Umra pilgrimage for the first time since 2014. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Thus, with no fanfare, Israel and Egypt are cooperating with Hamas in order to prevent still deeper despair in Gaza, where the unemployment rate stands at 52 percent and is even higher among those with academic degrees.

The poverty is only getting worse, with residents of the Strip telling The Times of Israel that there are now “islands of hunger” in Gaza. Nevertheless, a military adventure by Hamas on the eve of Israeli elections will not bring about any achievements, it knows, but only aggravate matters.

As the group pushes for an agreement with Israel, it sees Netanyahu’s reelection as an opportunity to create a new reality. This view is even being encouraged by Egypt, hence the delegation’s message to Hamas: Please be patient.

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