Gaza: Pause, or a longer halt?

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 8 May 2019

Will the Egyptian-brokered truce to end military clashes in Gaza hold?

Israeli air strikes in Gaza City
A missile lands as smoke rises during Israeli air strikes in Gaza City May 5, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

The military clash that flared between Israel and Gaza over the weekend ended as an Egyptian-mediated truce went into effect on dawn on Monday, the first day of fasting in Ramadan.

Palestinians in Gaza held funeral ceremonies for their martyrs, including three women, two of whom were pregnant, two infants and a child.

The conflict left a further 150 wounded and, according to Hamas government reports, Israeli bombardment destroyed 130 residential buildings and partially damaged 700 homes.

Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said that the Israeli army destroyed “hundreds of military targets” in Gaza during the two days of fighting, including arms depots and some “ostensibly” civilian infrastructure and buildings. He added that the Israeli army “will continue to attack with force, as needed, wherever it is needed”.

According to reports in the Israeli press the Israeli army struck 320 civilian targets in Gaza. The resistance retaliated by firing 600 missiles into Israel, killing four Israelis, including one Arab Israeli, and causing extensive damage to property.

Sources in Cairo told Al-Ahram Weekly that the truce will be implemented in two stages. The first calls for a cessation of hostilities and the return to conditions as they stood before the fighting, meaning diesel fuel supplies will resume, the fishing zone will be re-extended to 15 miles and crossings will reopen.

In the second stage Israel will begin to lift the blockade of Gaza, allowing the construction of two industrial zones and a number of infrastructure projects to go ahead.

The latest Israeli response against Gaza was “more violent and intense than in previous rounds”, Brigadier General Mohamed Ibrahim, former head of the Palestinian desk at the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, told the Weekly.

“This was to be expected given the political climate in Israel, with Prime Minister designate Benyamin Netanyahu in negotiations to form a governmental coalition. These are tough negotiations and involve representatives of the extreme right. Netanyahu wanted to convey the message that he would not go easy on Hamas, hence the massive Israeli bombardment and targeting of three Qassam Brigade field commands. The response was meant to be harsh, especially now Netanyahu realises Hamas is capable of threatening Israeli settlements in the south.”

Yet according to the Arab Israeli journalist and political analyst Jack Khoury, there is a quandary in Israel over how to handle Gaza. Invading Gaza to oust Hamas will not pave the way for the Palestinian Authority’s return there and Israel is not interested in occupying the Strip and trying to control two and a half million civilians in dire straits.

Khoury told the Weekly by phone that Israel is aware of the dangers posed by the humanitarian situation in Gaza and has tried the tactic of allowing aid into the Strip in small doses. It is a tactic that Palestinian factions and Gaza’s general population reject.

They fear the drip feed could become permanent and are now convinced that if conditions in Gaza are not allowed to improve the only alternative is escalation.

“Despite a general impression that Netanyahu offered concessions these did nothing to change the situation in Gaza. Ultimately, the latest round of fighting was simply another episode in a long series in which the casualty counts and the destruction get worse,” Khoury said.

Before, and during, the fighting over the weekend Hamas and Islamic Jihad security officials were in Cairo, making it, as one security official noted, “one of the rare occasions when Hamas fires missiles into Israel while it simultaneously has a delegation in Cairo”.

Islamic Jihad Secretary-General Ziad Nakhal warned that if any harm comes to Palestinian resistance fighters as a result of systematic targeted assassinations “we will respond with full force and target major cities regardless of any understanding that has been or will be signed”.

“We will have no red lines,” he insisted.

Israel killed several Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders during last week’s hostilities, most notably Abdullah Al-Madhoun, a commander in the Islamic Jihad’s military wing, the Quds Brigade, which announced it had lost six fighters during the battle.

Mohamed Abu Shaar, a political analyst from Gaza who spoke to the Weekly by phone during the funeral of one of his relatives who had been killed in the fighting, said that in retaliating to the Israeli bombardment Hamas had expanded the range of its targets to include Eshkol, Ashkelon and Beersheba.

Hamas realised that this was not a convenient time for Netanyahu to go to war and had opted to pressure him in order to achieve some gains for the cause.

The fact that the Eurovision contest is scheduled to take place in Israel was clearly advantageous, though Abu Shaar also feels the timing might have something to do with factional rivalry.

While Islamic Jihad has always coordinated with Hamas, Hamas sensed the group was seeking to ratchet up its responses.

“I think Islamic Jihad wanted to convey some messages abroad, especially to Iran. Tellingly, it claimed responsibility for firing the Badr-3 missiles that targeted Ashkelon,” says Abu Shaar.

Brigadier General Mohamed Ibrahim says Hamas, in particular, has grown more sophisticated in its responses to Israel.

“Hamas now understands what Israeli buttons to push and it calculates its responses carefully, perhaps even more than Israel does.”

He believes that despite this new-found nuance, Hamas is basically applying the same policy it has pursued since its coup in Gaza in 2007.

“It has found that turning up the heat on the ground bears fruit in the form of Israeli relaxation of restrictions against Gaza. It has acquired expertise in what we might term the costs of escalation. On the other hand, Israel has set a ceiling on what it will pay. It will allow the opening of the crossings, the entrance of commodities and fuel, an expansion of the permissible fishing zone.”

Speaking from Ramallah, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh stressed the need to rise above differences. He announced plans to send urgent medical aid and humanitarian relief to Gaza. Hamas responded with a ferocious attack against the Palestinian Authority (PA), charging that “the PA’s sanctions are the other face of the aggression against Gaza.”

Palestinian Legislative Council member Hassan Kharisha demanded that the PA lift its “retaliatory measures” against Gaza immediately and start to remedy the effects of the aggression.

“It is necessary to rise to the level of the wound that has been inflicted on Gaza. Everyone must realise that any sanctions against Gaza coincide with the goals of the occupation which seek to force the resistance to its knees,” he said.

Shortly before the latest military flare-up, in a separate but related development, Ismail Haniyeh, chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, invited PA President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the Palestinian reconciliation process in order to “avert the repercussions of the so-called deal of the century”.

An informed source in Cairo says this is mere posturing.

“In form there’s initiative, and Egypt has been indefatigable in its efforts to help talks resume. But in substance there is no hope of Hamas being serious about reconciliation. Haniyeh does not have the ability to make such a decision. He can only talk. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] realises this on the basis of 12 years of accumulated experience.”

The main question now, according to Khoury, is whether Egypt, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nikolay Mladenov and Qatar can manage to defuse the crisis.

Egypt is the one mediator that can assert pressure on both sides while Mladenov will be able to act in the event of any understandings being reached between the two sides.

“The big question now,” Khoury says, “is whether the Qataris and the UN can inject money into Gaza, and whether Israel will allow the money in, so that the Palestinian people feel real change rather than slogans. This is the only thing that will alleviate the crisis. Otherwise, we’ll go back to incendiary balloons to which Israel will respond by bombarding the Strip.”

Will the current truce hold? Khoury observes, firstly, that the Eurovision contest coming at the same time as Israeli independence day is an incentive for Israel to adhere to a ceasefire, if only to win time.

“Let’s not forget that Kushner plans to unveil his plan after Ramadan and he can’t do that in a war climate. It’s in everyone’s interest not to re-escalate.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Pause, or a longer halt?

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