The Ceasefire In Gaza: A Turning Point For Hamas and Netanyahu

The ceasefire deal between Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas, which is meant to suppress local violence, depends on the expansion of an alliance that risks even more regional violence.
If the slow-motion crisis that is Gaza ever has a turning point, then this week’s deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, or what’s left of it, and Hamas leaders, under siege, is what the turning would look like. Superficially, the sides are merely returning to the terms established after the horrific war of 2014, and, indeed, the deal comes after two days of bloody exchanges, kicked off by a sketchy Israeli intelligence operation gone awry—an operation that left a senior Hamas commander, six Hamas fighters, and an Israeli lieutenant colonel dead. Hamas fired some four hundred rockets into Israel, some reaching the coastal city of Ashkelon, where a Palestinian worker from the Hebron area was killed; the Israeli Air Force responded with more than a hundred and fifty strikes, including some on the Hamas television studio. Yet the ceasefire, which has been in the works since the summer, has quid pro quos that bring to mind not only 2014 but also the more formal disengagement-of-forces agreements that were negotiated in the nineteen-seventies after the October War—in this case, Hamas will tamp down the border violence in exchange for Israel’s commitment to a freer movement of goods into, and people out of, Gaza, and to more predictable fuel deliveries, to allow for more predictable electricity production. The deal is preliminary. But it amounts to clear, if tentative, steps toward a relaxing of the blockade, which has been tightening since 2007, in return for a more certain calm in Israel’s border communities.

The deal was brokered by Egypt and Qatar, with apparent encouragement from the Trump Administration. The Qataris sealed it by offering to pony up fifteen million dollars in cash to Hamas leaders, ostensibly to pay civil-servant salaries. Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has been reluctant to pay these, as long as Hamas refused to disarm and to consummate a unity agreement, which would, in effect, put the P.A. back in charge of the Gaza Strip. The Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has stood firm against Abbas, and his intransigence seems to be paying off. The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, known to be affiliated with Hamas, published details of the deal, which, should the ceasefire hold, would be implemented over three years. The Hamas-led border protests, in which more than two hundred Palestinians have been killed, and more than eighteen thousand wounded, would attenuate, and Israel would gradually lift up to seventy per cent of its restrictions on goods in and out of Gaza, including at its two border crossings, at Kerem Shalom and Erez. There is more. Egypt would insure that its crossing, at Rafah, would remain open, and the Gaza fishing zone would be extended from six nautical miles to fourteen. Several thousand Gazans would be given work permits for Israeli jobs. United Nations infrastructure and energy projects would meanwhile advance, creating as many as thirty thousand jobs for Gazans. “A gas pipeline to Gaza, using gas from Israeli and Palestinian sources, is already planned and moving forward,” Ariel Ezrahi, the director of energy in the Office of the Quartet (who is also my wife’s son), told me. “This will enable the necessary energy for other critical infrastructure, such as a major water-desalination plant, which is planned for the Strip.”

Yet it is anything but clear that the ceasefire will hold: during the agreement’s first hours, Israeli naval forces reportedly killed a young Gazan fisherman, ostensibly for sailing past the six-mile limit. What seems clearer, and is evidence of the deal’s importance, is how various political leaders have positioned themselves around it. Netanyahu’s coalition is in its last days, perhaps its last hours. Israel’s Putinesque defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that Netanyahu is “surrendering to terror,” and immediately resigned, bringing the government’s Knesset majority to just one seat. The education minister, Naftali Bennett, has also rejected the deal, and has made it clear that, if he is not appointed to the defense post, he will quit and bring the government down. Both ministers are merely playing to form, however. Israel must hold an election in 2019, and these two have always run against Netanyahu from the ideological right, only to extort him, and then hitch themselves to him, once a coalition took shape. Before Lieberman assumed the post, in May, 2016, he famously said that, if he were the defense minister, Hamas’s leader in Gaza—then Ismail Haniyeh—would have “forty-eight hours” to return the bodies of Israeli soldiers or be assassinated. Two years later, Hamas leaders, the bodies, and the bluster are still where and what they were. Lieberman is hoping that the resignation will redeem him with his hard line, largely Russian-born voters. Bennett wants to mobilize Land of Israel zealots who had counted on Netanyahu and might now be thinking twice. With him, Bennett said, Israel would “start winning again.”

More interesting is the positioning of Netanyahu, who, on Gaza, has provisionally aligned himself with Israel’s military establishment, which has persistently advocated for a deal, often in opposition to Likud political alliances. Like Ariel Sharon, who, in 2003, announced that he would unilaterally pull Jewish settlements out of the Gaza Strip—and infuriated the settler hawks in Gaza whom he had previously coddled—Netanyahu seems to be pivoting toward the Army strategists who believe that the status quo in Gaza entails too high a price. Last summer, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Gadi Eisenkot, openly clashed with Lieberman over the provision of humanitarian aid, which he saw as crucial for preëmpting another fruitless war. According to the daily tabloid Yediot Ahronot, a senior Southern Command officer told reporters that “Israel should consider an arrangement with Hamas in light of the organization’s bad strategic situation, its diplomatic isolation, and the growing distress among the strip’s residents, who are yearning for an economic improvement.” Otherwise, the officer implied, the military would have to keep “managing tactical incidents”—the daily exchanges of fire— which could spontaneously escalate into “strategic events,” a euphemism for another war.

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