A man holds a picture of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during celebrations after Hamas said it reached a deal with Palestinian rival Fatah, in Gaza City October 12, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)
The unity deal signed between Fatah and Hamas last week in Cairo ended a decade of bitter animosity between the rival Palestinian factions. According to reports this includes "an implicit understanding" that neither body will make unilateral decisions on war and peace with Israel without the backing of the other. To this end, Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh told Egyptian television earlier this month that there will need to be a consensus about "when and how to resist [Israel]."
The agreement, which restored the administrative rule of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza, has been supported by much of the international community but slammed by Israel—which insists that Hamas disarm and recognize the Jewish state before Jerusalem engages with any Palestinian political entity that incorporates the terrorist group.
The accord thus raised questions about how the Israeli government will respond to any Hamas provocations. Previously, Jerusalem held Hamas responsible for all rocket fire emanating from Gaza Strip, even if perpetrated by another organization, and has maintained a firm policy of targeting its assets following such aggressions.
It is unclear, however, whether Israel will now hold Abbas and the PA accountable for similar attacks against Israelis, as it does the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for the events of spillover from the fighting in and around the Golan Heights. Recently, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman similarly declared that in a future conflagration with Hezbollah, the Israeli army would respond against Lebanese government targets.
According to Brig. Gen. (Res.) Nitzan Nuriel, a former member of Israel's National Security Council and previously the director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau at the Prime Minister's Office, it is unlikely that Jerusalem will in the short-term amend its existing policy. "Israel needs to see how the [unity] agreement develops and before December 1 [when the PA officially takes control of the enclave] there will be no change in approach," he contended to The Media Line.
"Thereafter, the government will have to see what kind of activity is happening on the ground and will try to ensure that Abbas takes full control from a military as well as civilian perspective, but this is unlikely to occur. Hamas will find a way to conduct terror events through other proxies."
Nuriel thus argues that at some point in the future "Israel will probably hold both the PA and Hamas responsible for what happens in the Strip, but is likely to continue taking military action against Hamas only, while doing everything at the political level to show the international community that Abbas is a bad guy as well."
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As regards to the West Bank, the situation is likewise complex as Hamas has long been active there. To date, PA security forces have worked in tandem with their Israeli counterparts to suppress the terror group's military operations in the area, as they posed a significant threat to the PA regime in addition to the obvious dangers to Israel.
Maj. Gen. (Res.) Gabi Ophir, the former Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Homeland Defense, believes that this security coordination will not only continue but may even be strengthened, with the aim of ensuring that Hamas does not gain too great a foothold in the West Bank; this, despite vocal opposition by elements of the Israeli government to cut all ties with Abbas in the wake of the unity accord.
"Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can afford to allow a vacuum to be created in the area," he stressed to The Media Line. Moreover, Ophir suggested that enhanced security cooperation between Israel and the PA "could further neutralize Hamas and potentially force it to moderate its positions moving forward."
Finally, he explained that even if Hamas were to orchestrate an attack from the West Bank this would not change the strategic reality, "because as far as Israel is concerned there has always been one address to go to in these situations—Abbas."
Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Efraim Sneh, an Israeli politician and former head of the Israel Defense Forces' Civilian Administration (COGAT) in the West Bank agrees in principle, describing security cooperation as a "joint Israeli-Palestinian interest." He also expressed to The Media Line that "so long as Abbas' PA is not the dominant military force in Gaza, then Israel cannot hold him responsible for attacks originating from the enclave.”
"Should the PA at some point become empowered in the Strip, then this scenario could change," Sneh explained. However, in his estimation, Hamas will not disarm and therefore the Palestinian reconciliation deal is more smoke and mirrors than a practical pact.
Overall, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2009, culminating in the seven-week conflict in 2014 which killed some 2,000 Palestinians, along with more than 70 Israelis, and left the Strip in shambles.
Since then, Hamas has restored its arsenal to pre-2014 levels, when the group had approximately 12,000 missiles in addition to some 25,000 combatants. The movement has also been actively reconstructing its network of subterranean attack tunnels, which have been used to infiltrate Israel. Despite having made various modifications to its Charter this year, the terror group remains firmly committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.
Most analysts thus contend that Hamas will not lay down its arms, as called for by Abbas as a precondition for assuming control over the enclave. This, coupled with the fact that Hamas can now focus exclusively on its military activities raises the specter of yet another conflict with Israel.
The prevailing question, then, is how Jerusalem will respond when Abbas finds himself in the crosshairs of—or perhaps even an active decision-maker in—a future war.
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