- Although the timing is suspicious, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably did not launch an operation in Gaza to forestall a developing accommodation with Hamas. The Israeli incursion that sparked the latest conflagration in Gaza was of a kind that Israel carries out on a routine basis. It was, from all appearances, a routine intelligence operation gone awry. Gaza has been a steady source of political losses for Netanyahu, this time as well. His willingness to consent to Qatari cash coming into the Strip was unpopular in Israel, as was his quick agreement to a ceasefire. There was no good reason for Netanyahu to have intentionally gone down this path. Read more at LobeLog
Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues on the diplomatic front with the opening of two sets of talks this week in Cairo. One set will have Egypt brokering discussions with Fatah and Hamas on the future of governance in the Gaza Strip, while the other will see Egyptian and Palestinian Authority (PA) representatives shuttling between Hamas and an Israeli delegation.
Although Egypt brokered the ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel that ended 50 days of rockets flying out of Gaza and Israel, which devastated the tiny strip, it cannot have escaped Hamas’ notice that Egypt has an agenda of its own—and it is shared with just about every other party involved.
A sign of what Hamas will face was displayed this weekend, as UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry worked on achieving an agreement for 250-500 international observers to monitor reconstruction projects in Gaza. The purpose of the monitors would be to ensure that all materials brought into Gaza, and all the work done with them, is exclusively used to rebuild the homes, infrastructure and public buildings that were destroyed by Israel’s recent onslaught. The UN would be working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to guarantee that outcome.
Hamas is facing the consequences of the unity deal it agreed to back in April. At that time, Hamas was losing popularity in Gaza, was seeing what support it had in the Arab world evaporating, and found itself unable to pay civic employees. But the events of the summer changed things, at least for the time being.
Now Hamas is riding a wave of popularity after facing Israeli bombardment again and coming out battered but not broken. Qatar, whose support remains dubious, acted more supportive during the fighting. And, Hamas thought, the ceasefire arrangement would get the understandably disgruntled and desperate workers see some kind of paycheck. With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas having angered many Palestinians by wavering sharply between public condemnations of the Israeli onslaught and continued cooperation with Israeli security in the West Bank, Hamas had reason to reconsider the unity agreement.
But it accepted the agreement, which now seems like a trap. Abbas is insisting that the unity government be allowed to take over the administration of Gaza. Hamas is surely aware that in that event, the PA would have to embark on a campaign to control the violence in Gaza as it did with the West Bank. In other words, even without agreeing to disarm Gaza—an Israeli demand—the PA would, in fact, do just that. And, with no elections currently scheduled, Hamas could find itself completely marginalized.
This is, without a doubt, exactly what Egypt wants. Certainly the leadership knows that any attempt to disarm Hamas and the other armed factions in Gaza would be met with resistance. But Hamas, at least, is still substantially weakened after the battle with Israel. Egypt might reasonably expect that this fact will lead to a different outcome than the 2007 battle between Fatah and Hamas, which ended in a decisive Hamas victory. Moreover, Abbas has very little legitimacy in Gaza, but if he becomes the Palestinian face of reconstruction and of a marked improvement in the lives of the people there, it would be enough to slowly drain more support from Hamas.
It may well be that, if successful, Egypt would press Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and even allow the construction of an airport and seaport there. This would create a comparative economic boom in the beleaguered Gaza Strip and could keep things calm in the region for an extended period. For Israel, the downside would be increased diplomatic pressure to get back to serious negotiations about a two-state solution. That is exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feared when the Palestinians struck the unity accord, and the reason why he manipulated the murder of three young Israelis to lead to a much broader attack on Hamas.
But Netanyahu also knows that if there is one thing Israel excels at it’s negotiating endlessly with no results. He also knows that Israel’s behavior in Gaza angered many leaders around the world, particularly with the repeated attacks on UN facilities and the blatant targeting of civilians. Israel’s denials and claims of accidental actions have been greeted with skepticism at best, even in Washington (everywhere, that is, with the obvious exception of the halls of Congress). Israel’s position is not nearly as strong as Netanyahu thought it would be when the fighting stopped. Therefore, it may be that Netanyahu will accept the Palestinian unity government if it can marginalize Hamas.
Egypt certainly will work hard to convince Netanyahu to do so. Netanyahu reaps some benefits from having Hamas, which maintains some degree of control over Gaza but is a frightening specter to Israelis. Israel also enjoys having the Palestinian body politic split between Gaza and the West Bank.
But Egypt, under its new-old regime headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is quite keen to wipe out what they see as the last vestige of Muslim Brotherhood political power in the region. Egypt gets no benefit from the Palestinian split, and in fact would probably prefer to see the PA under Abbas assume control of Gaza to sideline Hamas. The hope would be that such a PA would work with Egypt to strangle ties between Gaza and militant groups in the Sinai, enabling some indirect assistance in that endeavor from Israel.
But most of all, Sisi wants to wipe out Hamas as a player in the region. That’s not necessarily what Israel wants. But even if the PA once again controls Gaza, and the strip and the West Bank become one territorial unit again, that is a far cry from the circumstances that would create real pressure on Israel to end its occupation.
The UN simply wants to rebuild Gaza, although it’s not very happy with Hamas either, after the group was caught using UN facilities to store weapons. Still, Robert Serry is likely inclined to focus on humanitarian relief rather than regional politics. But in order to do that, it needs to work to ensure that Hamas is not involved in that reconstruction.
Hamas knows all of this, but cannot simply refuse to go to these talks just because they’re in Cairo. Without these negotiations, international relief will not come into Gaza. Egypt has them in a difficult spot.
But Hamas also must be expected to abide by the unity agreement it signed. It knew this was part of it, and if circumstances have made that agreement less palatable, that is the risk it took. What it needs to do now is press for elections as soon as possible, under the terms of that same unity agreement.
By the time such elections could be held, some of the luster will have come off of Hamas’ steadfastness over the summer. And, if it does agree to allow the PA to take over Gaza again, it will also likely be abdicating its position as the leading revolutionary group among Palestinians. From that point on, other factions will be raising weapons against Israel and, quite likely, the PA as well.
Egypt certainly believes that this will eventually lead to Hamas’ disappearance. More sober minds in Israel probably fear that this will strengthen more radical groups in the Palestinian Territories, and they are probably correct.
But in the last analysis, the Palestinians must be unified. In that future, Gaza can be helped and the Palestinians can at least potentially have a representative leadership. The pitfalls are many, and the motives of the various players are dubious to say the least. But the alternatives are all far less likely to produce progress.
The attempt to resolve the ongoing, albeit highly uneven, exchange of fire between Israel and Gaza has now reached the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The draft proposal, initially pushed by the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, bears many of the same hallmarks as the most recent Egyptian ceasefire proposal. The United States came late to the game, but at least so far, it appears supportive of the idea. It remains to be seen how this will play out as the proposed resolution nears Security Council consideration.
The goals of the West are clear. One, resolve the current violence. Two, remove the difficult blight of the assault on Gaza, which is a much more powerful motivator for people to join pro-Palestinian protests than the more banal occupation of the West Bank. And three, bring the Gaza Strip back under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
This last goal implies actualizing the unity government that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw as a casus belli. The actions he has taken—especially in June with the so-called “Operation Brother’s Keeper,” a massive sweep through the West Bank—were intended to destroy the agreement the PA and Hamas had struck earlier in the year.
The reason for stopping the violence is self-evident. With ongoing talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, and, most especially, the new recognition that the Islamic State is a threat that cannot be ignored, the last thing the EU and US need is ongoing turmoil between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, what they really need is the return of the peace process. Peace is not necessary, but the spectacle of diplomacy tends to lower the volume on protests in the West over the plight of the Palestinians.
Why Israel Will Dislike the Resolution
Those points address the first two goals, but the real meat is in the third one. Here we need to consider what the “elements” of the proposed UNSC resolution would say. Ha’aretz reported the following:
- The return of control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority.
- Security arrangements to prevent the resumption of hostilities.
- The prohibition of the sale or supply of all weapons and munitions to the Gaza Strip, unless authorized by the PA.
- A commitment to preventing the financing of terrorism.
- The lifting of “economic and humanitarian restrictions” on the Gaza Strip in order to enable the reconstruction, economic rehabilitation and development of the territory.
- The full reopening of all border crossings with the Gaza Strip, “taking into account the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access.”
- An international mission monitoring and verifying implementation, investigating and reporting violations to both parties and to the Security Council, facilitating the movement of people and goods to and from Gaza and serving as a liaison between the parties.
- Asking the UN Secretary-General to draft a plan to help the PA establish “effective governance” in Gaza.
- Urging UN member states to contribute to Gaza’s reconstruction and help the PA to pay the salaries of civil servants in Gaza and increase the capabilities of its security forces.
- A call for a return to the talks aimed at a two-state solution
The resolution would seem to enable a lifting of the seven-year long blockade of Gaza while addressing Israel’s security concerns, though it’s not at all certain that the Israeli government would agree with that evaluation of the draft’s terms.
At the same time, this resolution would restore the status quo ante of years gone by when the West Bank and Gaza were regarded as a single territorial unit, the building blocks of the state of Palestine. Netanyahu would undoubtedly regard that as a serious setback, and all the more so because it would mean not only that his ambition to destroy the Palestinian unity government had utterly failed, but also that the unified PA would have some degree of international imprimatur. It would, in short, become a fact of life.
But that particular fact is one even the United States wants to actualize. Netanyahu may have a very hard time convincing the US to employ its UNSC veto power on that basis; he may just have to swallow it.
Many in Israel will recognize the sense of it, but they are represented almost entirely by the opposition, including the Labor Party. Netanyahu’s right flank will be up in arms, to an extent that could threaten his ruling coalition. But he will not be able to do much if the UNSC approves this resolution.
A Conundrum for Hamas
For Hamas, the question becomes whether or not they still want to be part of a unified Palestinian government. The pressures that led them into unity still exist, many of them intensified in the wake of the massive destruction Israel has wreaked upon Gaza. And, with the possibility of lifting the blockade, there are new reasons for Hamas to feel pressed to accept such a resolution.
But things have changed a great deal since the unity agreement was signed. The PA, under Mahmoud Abbas, continued its close cooperation with Israel in maintaining security in the West Bank throughout Israel’s massive West Bank operation in June and the bombardment and invasion of Gaza later in the summer. Abbas’ public standing was reduced to almost zero, and Hamas accordingly has reason to distrust his leadership.
Hamas can easily make the case that continued cooperation with Abbas after such collaboration would be yet another betrayal of the Palestinian people. More than that, though, they will be faced with a stark choice: abandon their identity as an armed resistance movement and hope there will be elections in the near future that will give them a secure place in the government; or, defy the will of the United Nations and escalate their struggle against not only Israel, but also the Palestinian Authority. Given the circumstances of recent events, neither of those options can be very palatable for Hamas.
Hamas’ resources and structural ability to govern Gaza have been crippled, and they simply have no means to address Gaza’s current economic and humanitarian devastation. If they refuse to cooperate with a UNSC resolution like this one, which seems to be gaining momentum, they will need to tell the Palestinian people why they are preventing the lifting of the blockade and refusing the sort of political unity that most Palestinians have considered a top priority for years.
Weakening Hamas is undoubtedly a driving force behind this resolution. If implemented, it would effectively de-fang Hamas while rescuing Abbas from political oblivion. After more than two decades of a fruitless “peace process” that only brought more destruction and Israeli settlements to the Palestinians, and Abbas’ cooperation with Israel, which has made him look like the worst kind of collaborator, the West is probably facing its last chance to keep its reliable partner in place.
Like past international peace plans for this region, the resolution is very advantageous for Israel. It omits any notion of investigations, much less charges, over Israel’s actions in Gaza, provides a solid system to ensure Israeli security, and addresses everything the Israelis have publicly said they were seeking from the bombardment of Gaza. It seems likely that, despite the Israeli public’s heavy rightward tilt, much of it would regard this plan as a good deal.
Fortunately, this resolution is also good for the Palestinian people. There are, to be sure, a huge number of pitfalls here, but an end to the territorial split between the West Bank and Gaza and to the split in the Palestinian leadership is an essential ingredient for any progress. Allowing the Gazan economy to start growing again is also imperative. Rebuilding the strip is an urgent necessity, especially since the shortage of water there, which was already a massive threat, has been greatly exacerbated by Israel’s onslaught.
It’s hard to see how those factors could outweigh the best interests of Hamas in the minds of most Palestinians. If this resolution is submitted and ultimately approved, Hamas will have to confront reality and ask whether it is fighting for itself, or for the Palestinian people.
In another piece I’ll be publishing later today, I take some time to discuss how the Israeli daily Ha’aretz has been marginalized in
Israel and no longer represents a “vibrant debate” as it once did. Now I must also take a moment to reflect on what is only the latest example of how their journalistic standards have fallen as well.
Ha’aretz today reports, uncritically, on the widespread story about leading Hamas activist Salach al-Aruri purportedly claiming that Hamas was, in fact, behind the kidnapping and murder of the three young Israelis earlier this year. That incident, you will recall, was the catalyst for a massive Israeli crackdown in the West Bank and eventually led to the horrors in Gaza these past weeks, which are ongoing. The problem is that this is a non-story, wherein al-Aruri said nothing we didn’t already know. Nothing he said should change anything about how we perceive this crime.
There has always been debate over whether the kidnappings were planned by Hamas or done by a rogue unit. The debate hasn’t really been a sensible one; speak to people with knowledge of the politics in Palestine and, in particular, the various armed factions as well as different familial groupings within the political system and resistance movements and you will realize quickly which side of the debate is correct. But such is the state of our media that such people are rarely spoken to, so we live in ignorance. Continue reading