Sick of running Gaza, Hamas may be aiming to switch to a Hezbollah-style role
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AnalysisIf Abbas lets it keep its weapons, Hamas could strike a deal

Sick of running Gaza, Hamas may be aiming to switch to a Hezbollah-style role

Islamist terror group has internalized that taking full responsibility for Gaza is a recipe for trouble. Better to do a unity deal and let the PA do the dirty work

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.

Abu Ubaida, spokesman of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, speaks during a memorial in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on January 31, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)
Abu Ubaida, spokesman of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, speaks during a memorial in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on January 31, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

It’s hard to keep track of the number of times Hamas and Fatah have purportedly been on the threshold of reconciliation. And it’s near impossible to keep track of the number of words that have been written in the Palestinian press and the wider Arab media by high-ranking officials in both movements about the imperative for national reconciliation and unity between Gaza and the West Bank.

Now Palestinian unity is back in the headlines again. A huge, 460-member delegation from the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah, headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and comprising officials, security personnel, and experts on water and electricity and who knows what else, is due in Gaza on Monday to emblemize the “return of the PA government to the Gaza Strip.”  Some pioneering members of the delegation actually arrived on Thursday.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah speaks during a press conference in the West Bank City of Ramallah, Monday, January 16, 2017 (Flash90)

Slightly more than ten years after the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, when Hamas bloodily overthrow the PA’s regime there, a historic moment of unity is supposedly upon us. The delegation, which has rented rooms in some of Gaza’s hotels, plans to hold various talks and discussions, mainly for the protocol and the cameras, in order to give at least the appearance of reconciliation.

One cannot avoid a sense of deja vu. Didn’t we see something rather like this unfolding back in April 2014, with a unity agreement and the establishment of a “national consensus government”? Unity did not ensue. After the “consensus” government was established, PA President Mahmoud Abbas firmly refused to fund the salaries of Hamas’s officials in Gaza. Then came the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers, and the Hamas-Israel war in the shape of Operation Protective Edge.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah shakes hands with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, at Haniyeh’s house in Gaza city on October 9, 2014

So how is this situation any different? It may not be. The details of the understandings between the parties are not clear. It is hard to imagine either one backing down on issues of substance, such as Hamas’s retention of its weaponry and the issue of who will control the Gaza borders. We may see another repeat of the familiar pattern: a festival of unity followed by difficulties in the talks and, finally, a widening of the rift and a worsening of the rivalries.

But some things really have shifted.

First, Hamas’s leadership changed in recent months. Khaled Mashaal and his gang of leaders living abroad are no longer in charge. Hamas is now led by two men who live in the Gaza Strip and were born in its refugee camps. Ismail Haniyeh, from the Shati camp, who heads the political wing, and Yahya Sinwar, born in the Khan Younis refugee camp, who is the leader of Hamas in Gaza.

Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh, center, speaks with Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, left, upon his arrival on the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip on September 19, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Haniyeh and Sinwar endorse Palestinian unity even though it is not exactly clear what they have in mind. They speak constantly about the imperative, and have tried taking several confidence-building measures with Fatah and its leader, Abbas. Abbas has spoken several times in recent weeks with Haniyeh; a channel of dialogue has opened.

Officials in charge of the security forces of each group are also talking, for a start on coordinating the arrival of the enormous delegation on Monday. Hamas officials have announced the dismantling of the “management committee” they had established in the Gaza Strip to replace Hamdallah’s government. The committee was ditched without preconditions, even though Hamas had set quite a few conditions in the past, notably including a demand for the lifting of the PA’s sanctions on Gaza.

Heed should be taken, too, of statements made Thursday by Sinwar, who was until fairly recently the most radical of Hamas’s leaders, to a group of young people in Gaza.

Yahya Sinwar (C), Hamas chief in Gaza, attends a meeting with Hamas youth in Gaza City on September 28, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

“I will break the neck of anyone who is against the reconciliation, be he from Hamas or from any other group,” Sinwar declared. “The decision to end the split is a strategic one. There is no way back from it.”

Hamas military wing commander Muhammad Deif (courtesy)

He also said that Mohammed Deif — the Hamas terror chief and commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades — is in favor of reconciliation. “The leaders of the Palestinian Authority must end this period of the split and turn toward the future in order to build a national plan,” he said. “Hamas will make painful concessions, each more difficult than the one before it, in order to achieve reconciliation.”

The cherry on top: “Hamas dismantled the management committee even before Abu Mazen [Abbas] got up to speak at the UN [General Assembly last week] because Hamas believes that a strong president is in the interest of the nation and the Palestinians.”

Sinwar said that Hamas was maintaining full coordination with the many rival groups in the Gaza Strip, and “we hope to integrate all of them into the Palestinian national army.”

The change in personnel and tone in the Hamas leadership connects to an uncomfortable reality for the Islamist terror group: Hamas has been forced to acknowledge its failure of governance on the civilian level — life in Gaza is unremittingly grim under its rule — and the consequent danger that the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip will rise up against it.

The willingness to dismantle the management committee unconditionally, and to hand over the keys to Hamdallah’s government where civilian matters are concerned, is tantamount to an open public admission of failure.

Hamas tried in every way possible for a decade to hold on to its control of Gaza, but now is showing clear signs of willingness to step aside, at least in the civic sphere.

Palestinian children do their homework by candlelight during a power outage in Gaza City on September 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

The appalling electricity shortage (Gaza’s inhabitants currently receive only five hours of electricity per day), the shut-offs in the water supply (they have running water only once every four days on average), the sky-high unemployment rate (approximately 44 percent), the slow rebuilding of the Gaza Strip after the 2014 conflict with Israel, the Egyptian closure of the Rafah border crossing — all these have combined to cause Hamas, and primarily Sinwar and Haniyeh, to rethink the matter of controlling the coastal enclave.

Palestinian labourers work at a cement factory, during the few hours of electricity supply from the mains they receive every day, at the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. September 24, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

This is dramatic, indeed. Hamas was born of the Muslim Brotherhood as supposed proof that “Islam is the answer.” Now, it is recognizing its limitations. Perhaps it is mindful of Tunisia’s Ennahdha Party, which wisely realized that it could not be the sovereign or the government, and would be better off sitting in the opposition. But Hamas may prefer the Lebanese example: to operate as Hezbollah does, to the extent possible.

Women wave a Lebanese national flag and Hezbollah flags in front of portraits of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil on August 13, 2016. (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Zayyat)

It is a simple idea, at least in theory: Allow the Palestinian Authority to run ongoing affairs in the Gaza Strip, to worry about electricity, water, sewage, social welfare, unemployment, and so on, while making sure that Hamas’s military wing retains all its weaponry.

That way, Hamas continues to be the powerhouse on the ground in the Gaza Strip, while the PA will have to deal with the dreary, thankless day-to-day affairs. For all the support for unity, Hamas officials have said explicitly that they do not intend to give up the “arms of the resistance” — the same term that Hezbollah uses in Lebanon.

There are several key issues of dispute on which the two sides can potentially reach agreement. The problem of the Hamas government officials hired after the 2007 coup — approximately 45,000 of them — can be solved. If both sides are willing, a mechanism can be found (perhaps according to the “Swiss model” once proposed by a Swiss diplomat who visited Gaza a number of times). Close to 20,000 of them are members of the civilian police force, the civil defense force and agencies created to deal with the personal security of Gaza’s inhabitants. The PA could hire them for its official agencies, even though these are already terribly bloated.

Another factor to bear in mind in this regard: the international community’s response. Reconciliation with Hamas, and an agreement that the PA is to pay the salaries of, say, 16,000 to 20,000 members of the security forces who were Hamas officials until moments earlier, would likely cause problems in the transfer of aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Taylor Force, murdered in Israel by a Palestinian terrorist in March 2016, gave his name to the Taylor Force Act, legislation proposing to halt US aid to the Palestinian Authority until the latter stops paying stipends to terrorists and their families. (Facebook)

The Taylor Force Act, which will limit American aid to the PA due to Abbas’s payments to the families of terrorists, is expected to pass in Congress in December. This may be one of the factors spurring Abbas to accelerate the process of reconciliation.

Also potentially solvable is the issue of a PA presence at the Gaza border crossings. High-ranking Hamas officials have hinted that they would agree to have the PA’s security forces take formal control, and perhaps even deploy along the border with Israel and Egypt. This would lead to the permanent opening of the Rafah Border Crossing and an immediate improvement in the Gaza Strip’s economic situation. There would be a great deal of support for such a measure in Washington, and perhaps, to some extent, in Israel too.

During a recent visit to the Gaza border, US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt — who was accompanied by Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories — said that the PA needed to return to the border crossings.

The critical Fatah-Hamas unity question that Israel will be watching carefully — and that may determine the viability and seriousness of any reconciliation agreement — is what will happen to Hamas’s military wing.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and then Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, right, raise their linked arms as they move through the crowd at a special session of parliament in Gaza City, March 17, 2007. (AP/Hatem Moussa/File)

Abbas knows very well that an agreement that leaves Hamas’s military wing intact will be a problem — for Israel, the international community, and his own interests — and it is hard to predict whether he would consent to it. In the past, Abbas had set the disarmament of Hamas as a firm prerequisite for any unity deal.

Abbas is also a man not known for easily forgiving his rivals. High-ranking PA officials say that he is not about to rush into the embrace of Hamas in Gaza. There is still profound suspicion between Fatah and Hamas, as well as hard feelings among residents of the West Bank and Gaza toward both groups.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem, April 2012. Netanyahu aide Yitzhak Molcho is at left, and PA security chief Majed Faraj is at second left. (Amos Ben Gershom /GPO/Flash90)

Yet Abbas’s low standing, as reflected in public opinion polls conducted among the Palestinian population in the West Bank, together with near-despair over any peace process prospects, might conceivably lead him to allow the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades to retain its weapons.

One indication that Abbas is pretty serious about unity this time is that the delegation he is sending to Gaza includes PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj, his close associate and confidant. Faraj is a kind of Palestinian combination of Yitzhak Molcho, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal diplomat, and Mossad director Yossi Cohen. It is Faraj, whose rigid and uncompromising policy regarding Hamas is well known, who is to lead the reconciliation process in Gaza.

In the final analysis, Abbas will want to know precisely what Hamas is offering, and is unlikely to rush into an agreement before he knows what the American peace plan will be. If there is to be a genuine reconciliation, it will this probably be a gradual process, unfolding after months of debate over the smallest details of many controversial topics.

And the devil, as we all know, is in the details.

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