Sides edge toward Gaza deal

"The truce would have to hold for a considerable period of time for Israel to discuss any humanitarian projects," said Israeli official.

gaza protest (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)
gaza protest
After agreeing to a ceasefire on the Gaza border, Israel and Hamas continued indirect negotiations on the details of a more comprehensive arrangement via Egyptian and United Nations mediators, hoping to clinch a deal by the end of August.
The temporary truce, based on the ceasefire that followed the 2014 Gaza war, also known as Operation Protective Edge, came after another round of intense cross-border exchanges in early August left the sides on the brink of a major military conflagration.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was reportedly in favor of a large-scale military operation but the security cabinet decided against such a move after Israeli generals cautioned that a major clash would not significantly improve Israel’s situation, given the working assumption that there is no organization that could replace Hamas in ruling Gaza at this juncture.
Israel and Hamas have fought 3 wars over the past decade, in 2008, 2012 and 2014 and both sides realized that with the incidents of cross-border fire erupting with increasing frequency, it was only a matter of time, and luck, before the exchanges escalated into a new war.
With neither side seeking such a scenario, the contacts for a more comprehensive arrangement went into high gear, as Egyptian Intelligence Chief Abbas Kamel engaged in shuttle diplomacy while representatives of the various Palestinian factions held separate talks in Cairo. Fatah, the faction headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, boycotted the Cairo talks.
The Lebanese-affiliated Al-Mayadeen network reported that the wider truce agreement between Israel and Hamas would include a one-year ceasefire and the establishment of a sea route between Gaza and Cyprus under Israeli security supervision.
In addition, Qatar would reportedly pay the salaries of civil servants in Gaza, helped by Egypt, and would also pay the Gaza Strip’s electricity bills in cooperation with Israel.
Israel views the emerging deal as a trial period, which, if it succeeds, will pave the way for a long-term arrangement that will include talks about an airport in Sinai for the use of the Palestinians in Gaza, broad rehabilitation of infrastructure with foreign funding and a prisoner exchange.
An Egyptian source said that if the truce proves viable, negotiations will be held to extend it to four years.
He further confirmed that a broader agreement would include a prisoner exchange, under which Hamas will return two Israeli civilians who crossed into the Gaza Strip as well as the remains of 2 soldiers who were killed during the Gaza War in 2014, Lieutenant Hadar Goldin and Sergeant Oron Shaul, in return for Israel releasing hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners.
Hamas denied that a prisoner exchange deal was in the works, saying it opposes linking a truce deal to a potential prisoner exchange. Hamas insists that Israel must first release all the prisoners who were freed under the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011 and subsequently rearrested, before it will negotiate the terms of a new prisoner swap.
Israeli officials denied that the current talks extended beyond a ceasefire, and said Arab reports of wide-reaching concessions were false.
“The truce would have to hold for a ‎considerable period of time for Israel to discuss any humanitarian projects in which it may be involved. This would also depend on prisoner exchange negotiations,” said an Israeli official involved in the contacts.
Hadar Goldin’s father, Prof. Simha Goldin, during a protest at the Gaza border, rejected any deal that does not include the return of the soldiers’ remains, comparing Prime Minister Netanyahu to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who signed the Peace in Our Time treaty with Hitler.
“After the spin doctors were frightened by the term ‘ceasefire,’ because Hadar was killed and kidnapped during a humanitarian ceasefire, they invented a new term – ‘arrangement.’ So from here on in, I want to say to Netanyahu this is not a ceasefire or an ‘arrangement’– it’s called ‘appeasement.’ Appeasement is what Chamberlain did when frightened by a tyrant and an oppressor. Bibi is not Churchill – Bibi is Chamberlain...To be Churchill he has to make the enemy understand the price he has to pay for his actions and we are not doing that,” Simcha Goldin said.
The most significant opposition to the emerging arrangement from within the Israeli leadership came from Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, a member of the security cabinet, who dubbed the deal “Oslo II.”
“The Israel-Hamas agreement that Liberman pushed for is a serious and irresponsible mistake that will allow Hamas to accelerate rocket production,” he said. “Message received: terrorism pays.”
Officials from Yisrael Beiteinu, the party headed by Defense Minister Liberman, replied that Minister Bennett was frequently absent from security cabinet meetings on Gaza and was therefore not an expert on the details. They said that there has been a disagreement between the responsible and state-oriented Right, represented by Liberman, and the messianic and populist Right, represented by Bennett and his fellow Bayit Yehudi Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich, who support a binational state and reoccupying Gaza.
Another obstacle in the way of an emerging deal is the sidelining of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party. Ramallah is angry that Egypt is focusing on the truce arrangement and neglecting Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad went so far as to call the inchoate arrangement with Israel “a betrayal of the Palestinian people and its national aspirations.”
Abbas repeated his demand that Hamas hand full control over the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority government insisting that funds earmarked for Gaza be channeled via the Ramallah government. Otherwise, he said, Hamas should assume full responsibility.
Nadav Argaman, the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), warned that an arrangement without Abbas sent the message that terrorism pays and that in the long- term, it would weaken the moderates and strengthen Hamas. The Shin Bet maintains that Israel must closely oversee all goods bound for Gaza in order to prevent weapons from entering.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, the former head of the National Security Council, said the key to clinching a deal with Hamas is putting Palestinian reconciliation on the back burner.
“Israel’s only interest vis-à-vis Gaza is security. We have no political interests. It’s certainly not in our political interest to bring Abbas into Gaza. Hamas’s interest is narrow, clear and practical. It wants to continue to rule the Gaza Strip. And to that end, it needs international legitimacy and economic aid. The moment that the Egyptians realized, and it’s good that they did, that reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is impossible and we should put that aside and only talk about the sides’ true interests, the Egyptians’ interest is also clear. It is that Hamas stop cooperating with the ISIS branch in Sinai. And then, if each of the three sides – Israel, the Gaza government and Egypt – focuses on its true and only interest, that will be the basis for success.”
Despite the ongoing indirect contacts, Hamas insists that the March of Return protests continue with thousands of demonstrators amassing along the border ever Friday. Israeli troops remain on heightened alert and the danger remains that the border protests will spark another military clash before the parties agree to the terms of a wider arrangement.