Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are amidst negotiations for a multifaceted deal via Turkey, Qatar and the US for ending rocket fire from Gaza and affirming a Palestinian power-sharing agreement. This corridor to a long-term Gaza truce, while costly for Israel, is favored by its military command.
Hope was boosted when Hamas on Nov. 29 cancelled another of its Friday clashes, the third in a row, between bomb-throwing Palestinians and Israeli troops on the Gaza border. Reluctant to totally give up this twenty-month long week-by-week “March of Return” spectacle, Hamas leaders are discussing whether once every two months is enough.
Israel’s political scene is too toxic for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s policies to be credited for this let-up in Gaza violence. Rather his policy of sanctioning Qatar’s monthly cash payments to Gaza’s Hamas rulers and its impoverished population was roundly slammed by his opponents. Opposition speakers vowed to “put a stop to the suitcases of cash entering Gaza” when they come to power.
But they have turned silent in the last few days now that this policy is seen starting to bear fruit. Not only has Hamas slowed its terrorist operations against Israel, but the hidebound Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, under its octogenarian chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) of Fatah, is stirring into life.
The spirit of change awakening in the two rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, may not be altogethery good news for Israel, especially when Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan is a key player. On a visit to Qatar on Nov. 26, to inaugurate a Turkish military base established to secure its ruler Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani in his dispute with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, his talks with the emir centered strongly on plans for Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections to be held for the first time in 12 years.
Erdogan and his host devised a formula for overcoming the long feud between the Fatah leader Abbas and Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh. They proposed that the rival factions agree in advance on the results of the election. Abu Mazen’s Fatah would win a majority, Hamas a minority. The presidency would be retained by the former. This carve-up would have two consequences:
- The PA and its ruling Fatah would be given a role in the Gaza Strip’s civic rule, including full responsibility for expenditure, while Hamas would maintain its military arm and control of domestic security.
- Hamas’ political and religious organs would be allowed by the PA to re-establish operations in the PA-controlled areas of the West Bank.
The Qatari sheikh and Turkish president offered to personally vouch for this accord for the two participants.
Another visitor to Doha this week was Abu Mazen. The Qataris handed him a personal letter of five pages addressed to him by Ismail Haniyeh. DEBKAfile’s sources report that the PA chairman, on the pretext of needing time to study its content, held back his reply to the Turkish-Qatari power-sharing proposal put before him.
Hamas is meanwhile making preparations for Palestinian elections. All its spokesmen have been ordered to desist from public statements. Yahya Sinwar, who is addicted to fiery rhetoric, was advised by Turkish president to stop hailing Iran as the great champion of the Palestinian cause. In another directive, Hamas ordered a halt on rocket fire against Israel, successfully applying it to the Islamic Jihad. The pause in the weekly border riots was another by-product of progress towards an agreed truce with Israel.
Erdogan and Al-Thani must still overcome formidable obstacles before an Abbas-Haniyeh accord is concluded and the way is clear for a long-term Gaza truce with Israel. But another hopeful sign that Hamas is finally beginning to attend to the needs of the Gaza population occurred this week when work began on a big new American hospital at the Erez border terminal between Gaza and Israel. This hospital would reduce the Gazans’ total dependence on Israel and Egypt for medical treatment.
The source of its funding is unknown, likely buried somewhere in the relations between Qatar and Washington and possibly figuring in President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan when it eventually sees the light of day. UN Middle East peace envoy Nikolay Mladenov is also making noteworthy progress on the track he is running between Egypt, Hamas and Israel.
This buzz around the Gaza may be positive news for Israel, by and large, but the price for its outcome may be high. If the Fatah-Hamas accord brokered by Qatar and Turkey goes through, Hamas’ political and religious institutions will be making a comeback on the West Bank. Israel will have to find a strong guarantor as insurance that Hamas will not exploit its comeback for a return to terrorist violence against Israel – this time within easy reach of its central conurbation and international airport.
However, with its politics in chaos, and an interim government with a life expectancy only up until another election just months away, Israel is in no state for making fateful decisions. The IDF’s Deputy Chief of Staff Brig. Gen, Eyal Zamir, former head of the Southern Command, is trying to step into the breach. He is going around with the enthusiastic message that the potential Fatah-Hamas deal, if concluded, would herald new relations of cooperation instead of confrontation between Hamas and Israel. He points out that already, Hamas is showing good will be holding the Islamic Jihad back from resuming its rocket barrage against Israel.
Still, the obstacles to overcome before this happens are pretty formidable: For instance, Abu Mazen must forego his stipulation for the Palestinian elections to include East Jerusalem or not take place anywhere else. And Israel will not sanction any accords before Hamas hands over the missing IDF soldiers’ bodies and civilians held hostage against the mass release of convicted terrorists.