Shifting the Balance of Power from Ramallah to Gaza

Photo of Gaza City

The Middle East has been abuzz over the past two weeks with anticipation and excitement over the indirect talks held in Cairo between the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Israel. The discussions, mediated by the Egyptian intelligence services, centered around two proposals – one advanced by Egypt, the other by the United Nations – aimed at diffusing the tense situation on the Gaza-Israel border generated by the “Great March of Return.” The six-week protest campaign was initiated on March 30, 2018, by civil society groups in the Gaza Strip, including some groups affiliated with Hamas. Essentially, the campaign had a threefold objective: Ending the eleven-year-old Israeli blockade on Gaza, garnering international support for the Palestinian right of return, and challenging the “deal of the century” advocated by the Trump administration.

Although the protest march has been, even by Israeli admission, a knockout victory in the PR war for the Palestinians, particularly for Hamas, which managed to steer it in its favor domestically and internationally, the same cannot be said for the human toll inflicted upon the young civilian protesters, who bore the brunt of the merciless Israeli military response. With over 168 Palestinians shot to death and more than 17,000 injured by live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas, the violent crackdown by the Israeli army energized the Gazan protestors instead of dampening their enthusiasm. This determination and unyielding support for the protests on the Palestinian side of the border raised the anxiety and fears on the Israeli side and increased public pressure on the Netanyahu government to end the clashes in a timely fashion. Consequently, both sides found themselves emotionally and physically exhausted despite the nonsymmetrical nature of the confrontation.

The Emerging Plan for Gaza:

On July 30, 2018, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov met in Cairo with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to discuss diffusing the escalating security confrontation in Gaza between Hamas and Israel. Mladenov described the discussions as “positive” and managed to coordinate his UN plan of de-escalation with the complementary ongoing efforts of his Egyptian interlocutors. The joint plan included several short-term and long-term objectives including, but not limited, to the following:

  1. Implementing an immediate, short-term ceasefire in Gaza between Hamas and Israel.
  2. Relieving the humanitarian situation in the Strip through gradual reopening of all crossings, removing restrictions on the entry of currently prohibited goods, and increasing the supply of fuel and electricity.
  3. Redefining and eventually lifting the Israeli air, land and sea blockade on Gaza.
  4. Ending the sanctions imposed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) on Gazans.
  5. Launching an international economic effort to rehabilitate the infrastructure and revitalize Gaza’s economy.
  6. Implementing intra-Palestinian agreements regarding national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
  7. Discussing a potential prisoner swap between Israel and the Palestinians.
  8. Reviving stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The package discussed gained cautious support from the immediate parties prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his long-planned trip to Latin America and to allow exiled Hamas leaders, including exiled Politburo Deputy Chairman Saleh Al-Arouri, to enter Gaza to pursue internal discussions and formulate an official response to the proposed ceasefire plan. Netanyahu, according to Israeli Channel 10 was waiting for the good news from Cairo after meeting secretly with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sissi back on 22 May 2018, to discuss the potential for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Numerous hurdles could emerge to derail the efforts to stop the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA in Ramallah immediately smelled foul play and were clearly agitated by these developments which they deemed as beneficial to Hamas at the expense of what they characterized as national Palestinian institutions under the control of Fatah. They suspected that a direct agreement between Israel and Hamas will benefit the latter, further marginalize the PA, and institutionalize the political separation between the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite these apprehensions, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah couldn’t afford to express its outright rejection of the plan and allowed Fatah operatives to attend some of the early discussions. They did nonetheless voice strong criticism of the process while allowing PM Rami Hamdallah to express his readiness to return to the Gaza Strip if Hamas were ready to hand over all local authority to the PA, including policing power, internal security, taxation and control over border crossings.

Technical and Political Hurdles:

As expected in any indirect and multi-party negotiations, there are numerous potential hurdles that could emerge to derail the efforts by Egypt, the UN and others to stop the conflict between Hamas and Israel and end their four-month confrontation. Each party has its own red lines that it insists on holding fast. Hamas, for example, refuses for appearances’ sake to link a potential cease fire agreement with promised economic assistance to Gaza. It has long objected to the inclusion of the prisoner exchange issue in the package deal. Fatah and the PLO, on the other hand, insist on keeping the reconciliation issue with Hamas as part of the ceasefire deal to ensure their own predominant role in the process.

Furthermore, Ramallah questions the legality of Hamas signing its own separate agreement with Israel since such accords have been considered exclusively part of the powers of the PLO. Egypt also insists on the implementation of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo in October 2017, and on supervising the economic projects for Gaza, particularly those to be built on Egyptian territory like a new airport, power plant or port facilities. Israel, not to be outmatched, does insist on a prisoner swap leading to the release of its civilian and military captives held in Gaza and complete calm on its border with Gaza guaranteed by Hamas. Netanyahu made his objective quite clear as he told his cabinet, “Our objective is to restore quiet to residents of the south and the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu added, “This goal will be achieved in full.”

These are certainly very complicated and sensitive issues that could hinder the implementation of the ceasefire plan and potentially derail it. But political differences and the absence of trust between the antagonists remain the principal difficulty facing the sponsors of the plan. After all, Hamas and Israel remain sworn enemies with abundant mutual distrust between them. Indeed, the first resumption in fighting came quite early as the Hamas delegation left Cairo for consultation with local colleagues in Gaza to approve a draft response to the Egyptian proposal.

Israel and Hamas opted to end the well-choreographed violent clashes and return to their “calm for calm” arrangement.

After a short-lived ceasefire that lasted about 24-hours, the fighting quickly resumed and intensified to include scores of Palestinian rockets launched against Israeli targets and Israeli air force raids hitting Hamas military positions and civilian targets in the Strip. As in the past, both sides blamed each other for violating the ceasefire. Frankly, many experts, including this writer, viewed this wave of fighting as a “negotiating tactic,” or a form of negotiation by other means to improve their respective bargaining positions in the final hours of the continuing talks. Motivated by their political interests, both sides opted to end the well-choreographed violent clash and return promptly to their “calm for calm” arrangement. Netanyahu’s message to Hamas is that Israel is free to strike as hard and as frequently as needed for its own security. While Hamas made it clear that it was not impressed by Israeli military response regardless of its level of brutality. As Zvi Bar’el wrote in Haaretz, “In need of a stable economic base, Hamas has no problem continuing talks while bombs are flying. Meanwhile, Israel seems willing to negotiate as if it weren’t being attacked – and to strike back as if there were no talks.”

The Hamas-Israel Agreement:

As in past agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, most of the leaked details about the current ceasefire agreement came from Israeli sources. According to Haaretz, the ceasefire deal with Hamas includes six main clauses to be implemented in a reciprocal and phased manner:

  1. A comprehensive cease-fire;
  2. The reopening of Gaza’s border crossings and expansion of the permitted fishing zone;
  3. Medical and humanitarian assistance;
  4. A resolution to the issue of the captive soldiers, missing civilians and prisoners;
  5. A broad reconstruction of Gaza’s infrastructure, with foreign funding;
  6. And discussions about sea and air ports in Gaza. (Haaretz, August 16, 2018)

According to Al-Mayadeen satellite television channel, the ceasefire deal has a time schedule of one year and includes a commitment by Qatar to pay the salaries of Gazan workers withheld by the PA in Ramallah and supply Gaza with electricity. In addition, according to the same source, a “waterway between Gaza and Cyprus” will be established under the supervision of Israeli security.

Winners and Losers

At this early stage of the agreement, Hamas has emerged as the principal winner. First, the Islamic Resistance Movement managed to achieve some gains through military resistance in contrast to the non-violent approach that its rival Fatah has advocated. This might be of limited significance in the West, but not in Palestinian eyes. Second, although Hamas did not force Israel by any stretch of the imagination to lift its siege on Gaza, it definitely pressured it to ease its enforcement of the siege by reopening the Karem Abu Salim (Kerem Shalom) crossing, resume the flow of humanitarian and other urgently needed supplies to Gaza, and extend the permitted fishing zone in the Strip back to 9 nautical miles. Third, Hamas succeeded in bringing attention to the dismal economic conditions in the Strip and securing international funding to the tune of $650 million for infrastructure rehabilitation and economic revitalization. That should deflect some of the criticism leveled at Hamas, internally or externally, for contributing to the stagnation of Gaza’s economy.

Finally, but most significantly, Hamas managed through this agreement to shift the political balance of power traditionally located in Ramallah to Gaza. This achievement will become very clear in the next few weeks or months if the ceasefire agreement holds and is fully implemented as the parties move to discuss significant peace issues between Israel and the Palestinians under the leadership of Hamas rather than the PLO, as has been the norm. Hamas spokesman Osama Amer told Alaraby Aljadeed1 in Cairo that his group and other Palestinian factions will refuse to enter negotiations with Israel within a joint Palestinian delegation headed by Fatah as they did in July-August 2014. This statement by Hamas becomes even more worrisome to Ramallah when considered in light of the statement by a spokesperson for the National Security Council at the White House stating that “It would be best if the PA reasserts control” over the Strip, however, “We would like to see an end to fighting with or without the PA.” This new position by the Trump Administration must have registered 9.6 on the political Richter’s scale in Ramallah, particularly if the Kushner-Greenblatt duo get their way and finally release their long-delayed ultimate deal.

At this early stage of the agreement, Hamas and Israel seem to have emerged as the principal winners while the PA and the PLO are clear losers.

Israel also emerges out of this agreement as a winner although to a less dramatic extent than Hamas. First and foremost, the Netanyahu government wanted a quick ceasefire on the borders with Gaza to mitigate the internal criticism leveled at the government by its political detractors and by the general Israeli population in the immediate proximity with Gaza. The second popular demand on the Israeli side is the issue of retrieving the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers and other prisoners held by Hamas. The fact that two main demands by Israel must be implemented at a later stage puts the Netanyahu government on the defensive in the short-term but might improve its stature domestically should Hamas deliver on both counts down the road. Third, Israel is clearly relieved that some international funds, mostly from Qatar and European Union, is heading toward Gaza to relieve Israel, as the de facto “occupying power” from the potential collapse of the Gazan economy. And finally, the Netanyahu government will welcome the shift in international, including Arab, attention from the West Bank to Gaza. Potential compromises by Israel on Gaza would be an easier pill to swallow than any trade-off related to Jerusalem or the rest of the occupied West Bank. That is why successive Israeli governments, both Labor and Likud, were generally receptive to the concept of “Gaza First” or Gaza Plus.”

On the other hand, the PLO and the PA came out on the losing end of this deal. First, the talks were held in their absence, which contributed to the already deep marginalization of both institutions. Second, the ceasefire agreement rescued Hamas from its own isolation because of its administrative failures and lack-luster performance in governing the Gaza Strip. It is apt (likely?) to solidify Hamas’ control over Gaza and potentially increase its support on the West Bank should it decide to challenge the PA leadership. Third, the agreement with Israel, particularly if fully and successfully implemented, will diminish the international stature of the PLO as the “sole, legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people; a stature that took decades of difficult and bloody struggle to achieve.

As Attorney General and President of the Gaza Bar Association, the late Fayez Abu Rahme, was fond of saying: Welcome to Planet Gaza!

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Khalil E. Jahshan click here

1 Source in Arabic.