Sponsored by Egypt and other global players, indirect talks between Israel and Hamas have faltered, which threatens a return to another round of escalation.
Experts predict it will be more ferocious this time, as Israel continues to delay reconstruction in Gaza, insisting on linking progress on the issue with the return of Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas. The Palestinian factions do not believe what Israel is offering is enough.
Informed Palestinian sources said that in the last few days factions in Gaza have discussed another round of military confrontations with Israel, deliberating over gradual escalation that would begin with marches on the border, the release fire balloons towards Israeli towns and settlements, and disrupting activities at night. The terms demanded by Hamas and other factions to avoid another round of fighting were turned down, and the truce based on reconstruction and a prisoner exchange has floundered.
This means clashes will probably reignite. One source said mediators are working hard on both sides to avoid military confrontations, but Palestinian factions are not satisfied with what Israel intermittently provides. They told mediators that measures should return to pre-11 May conditions and the Israeli siege of Gaza must stop.
The source continued that Hamas leaders told Egyptian mediators that they reject the offers made by the Israeli government, and that the Qatari donations must be delivered according to existing agreements or a new mechanism agreed on by Hamas.
International mediators urged Hamas and other factions in Gaza to give the political track more time to reach a new understanding with the government of Naftali Bennett, the leader of Yamina Party. Available information revealed that Egypt and other international parties are working on reaching a comprehensive deal between Hamas and Israel that would install a long-term truce and oversee a prisoner exchange. However, Hamas currently rejects this idea especially since Qatari funds are being withheld, and construction and other raw materials are prevented from entering Gaza.
The factions in Gaza issued strongly worded warnings against what they described as Israel’s attempts to extort Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, asserting they were willing to go to war against Israel if need be.
Osama Hemdan, a leading Hamas figure, told news outlets that Israel understands that the tools of resistance are many when responding to its failure to honour its commitments in previous agreements. Hemdan said his group would not give Israel extra time to implement Palestinian demands, especially those relating to problems in the Gaza Strip. “Israel has scaled back measures in the Sheikh Jarrah district, and we demand it exits that neighbourhood completely,” he added.
Dawoud Shehab, a leading figure in the Islamic Jihad group, said Israel continues with its aggression against the Palestinian people in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, and is deliberately delaying lifting the siege on Gaza.
“Israel wants to distract Gazans with everyday life problems and divert them from the plot to dismantle the Palestinian cause,” he said. “Israel wants to cover up its failure in recent military confrontations by tightening the siege on factions in Gaza. The factions in Gaza have strong cards to play and great potential; we are always ready to fight Israel and respond to Israeli aggression. We are ready if they try to violate the sanctity of our Palestinian people.”
Israeli sources said that lack of progress in indirect talks between the Palestinian factions and the Israeli government makes it more likely that ferocious fighting will erupt once again between the two sides. The Israeli media reported that the region is on tenterhooks and that despite good-will gestures in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli security apparatus asserts that the likelihood of military action is growing by the day.
Israel’s Army Radio reported that the probability of military confrontation has risen in recent days, especially since Qatari funds were blocked and talks on these funds failed when banks with branches in Gaza refused to disburse the money to beneficiaries in the Gaza Strip in case they are prosecuted according to US anti-terrorist laws.
Israel stopped transferring Qatari funds of $30 million every month since the 11-day war in May, and asked that they should be transferred via the Palestinian Authority and UN. Israeli media reported a breakthrough on the issue was reached, although no Palestinian sources would concur.
A rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, another sign that Palestinian factions may have started a gradual plan to pressure Israel.
Israel’s Walla! news website said that recent acts of cooperation on Israel’s part were a compromise to appease Hamas’s leadership, but if the group’s leader in Gaza Yahyia Al-Sinwar rejects these measures, an eruption is bound to come. Israel’s Channel 20 news said the government’s decision to facilitate the work of salesmen and movement at border crossings into Gaza is in the hope of preventing another round of fighting. “The problem is those in the Israeli government refuse to understand that these measures will not prevent the second round of fighting,” it reported. The channel added that when Hamas decides to start another round of fighting, that will happen irrespective of such measures.
The measures do not include lifting the ban on raw materials or construction materials which hinders reconstruction plans. Political analysts believe the Israeli government wants to avoid a new military confrontation with the Palestinian factions in Gaza, explaining that recent measures may appease Palestinians to de-escalate on the ground.
Experts counter, however, that Israel’s unilateral good -ill gestures without international mediators will never be enough to prevent another war in the Gaza Strip. They add that gradual confrontations are very likely.
Writer and political analyst Ahmed Rafiq said that it is clear that attempts to bring Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints together have failed, because each side insists on their demands before agreeing to a truce. Rafiq said that the new Israeli government wants to prove itself to the Israeli electorate and not fall into the trap of accusations previously levelled at Binyamin Netanyahu, especially regarding Qatari funds and understandings with Hamas.
In recent weeks, the two sides held indirect talks in Cairo led by the Egyptian Intelligence Agency, to achieve the longest possible truce between them in return for economic improvements in the Gaza Strip. Blocking progress on these talks however is that both sides are adamant that their demands should be met before agreeing to a long-term truce and reconstruction. While Israel is bargaining with Hamas about the Qatari grant and reconstruction of Gaza, Hamas is taunting Israel about the captured Israeli soldiers.
Informed sources said Hamas is taking a hardline position on the prisoner exchange deal although it has made minor compromises on the matter. This will not lead to a breakthrough any time soon, however, especially since Israel feels that Hamas and other factions in Gaza have only made minor shifts which do not warrant reaching an agreement. Israel insists that reconstruction and development in Gaza will not happen until the prisoner exchange issue is resolved or progress is made there. No significant developments will occur until the Israeli soldiers are released, according to Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
Observers believe that, right now, Hamas and Israel are closer to a confrontation than a truce, especially since Hamas has started giving strong signals of moving towards a new confrontation, albeit gradually.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly