Armistice with Hamas, Growing Tensions with Abbas
Israel and the Palestinians brace for the announced unveiling of President
Trump’s “deal of the century” sometime in the coming weeks, rival factions
in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip have adopted contradictory strategies for
managing the repercussions. The Palestinian Authority is already committed to
rejecting the U.S. plan and wants Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to
resume peace negotiations under Russian auspices. Yet Israel has politely
ignored such proposals in the past and is unlikely to replace White House
mediation with the Kremlin’s.
PA president Mahmoud Abbas has issued vague warnings that he may take
retaliatory measures if Israel’s soon-to-form right-wing coalition government opts
to annex settlement blocs in the West Bank. During internal deliberations
over the past few months, his Fatah party passed recommendations to suspend
the 1993 Oslo Accords, withdraw recognition of the state of Israel, cease
security cooperation, and even dismantle the PA. He has also refused to receive
customs funds collected by Israel so long as payments to “martyr” families
and terrorist prisoners are deducted from the transfers—a stance that has
exacerbated the PA’s ongoing
Gaza, Hamas shares Abbas’s outright refusal to discuss the U.S. plan, but the
group is inching closer to a separate set of understandings with Israel.
Brokered by senior military officials from Egypt’s General Intelligence
Directorate, UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov, and Qatari aid coordinator Mohammed al-Emadi,
these understandings have been under discussion for over a year but may now be
reaching the point of fruition. If so, they could stabilize the turbulent
situation in Gaza, establish a fragile long-term ceasefire, and usher in a
generous package of economic programs. In short, while the PA appears to be
sliding toward open confrontation with Israel, Hamas may soon dramatically
reduce tensions with the “Zionist enemy,” at least for the time being.
FROM RECONCILIATION TO
PA and Hamas leaders have been exchanging highly emotional public pleas for
speedy Palestinian reconciliation, hoping to unify the ranks before the U.S.
plan is released. Both factions argue that establishing a “unity government”
and scheduling early elections for the PA presidency and Palestinian Legislative
Council would convince Arab states to reject what they believe will be a
one-sided U.S. proposal.
far, however, they are stubbornly avoiding any concessions that would help end
the twelve-year split between Gaza and the West Bank. Egypt has hosted numerous
rounds of talks between top Fatah and Hamas representatives over that period and
produced agreements on the broad principles of reconciliation, but none of them
has matured to the implementation phase.
welcomes PA leaders to return to Gaza and govern the territory, but it refuses
to disarm its militia forces or even hand over command of the police. It also
insists on retaining the thousands of officials it has appointed since taking
control of the Strip in 2007, while PA employees were instructed to stay home.
In response, Abbas has refused to become the “subcontractor” who carries the
formidable burden of running Gaza while Hamas turns itself into another
Hezbollah, maintaining an independent army with a large arsenal of missiles.
Reconciliation talks are now at a dead end, and the parties are unlikely to
bridge their gaps anytime soon.
even as Hamas and Fatah denounce each other’s contacts with Israel, both are
pursuing dialogue with Netanyahu’s team. The PA has preserved effective
security corporation with Israeli military and intelligence agencies as well as
close coordination on economic issues. Although Abbas has not met with Netanyahu
for years, communication channels are kept open and busy via the head of the
Israel Security Agency.
Gaza, Hamas is rushing to transform the continuous
border flare-ups into a kind of armistice with Israel. Abbas has described
this effort as a U.S.-backed “conspiracy” aimed at creating a separate “statelet,”
arguing that such an outcome would obstruct full Palestinian statehood. He has
also cut a great deal of funding to Gaza, which previously amounted to 52
percent of the PA budget. This has caused a severe currency shortage,
exacerbated Gaza’s problems with unemployment, electricity, and food supplies,
and stirred unprecedented street protests against Hamas. The group dispersed
these demonstrations within days, but the incident showed that its iron grip may
be at risk.
THE ROAD TO ISRAEL-HAMAS
becoming the top Hamas leader in Gaza two years ago, Yahya al-Sinwar has
concluded that the group cannot afford an all-out military escalation with
Israel, let alone achieve its demands for a free sea and airport in the Strip by
that route. He spent twenty-two years in Israeli jails, speaks fluent Hebrew,
and follows the Israeli media religiously, so he understands that Netanyahu’s
response to another major confrontation would be far more devastating than
Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Meanwhile, Hamas has lost most of its
cross-border attack tunnels into Israel and is struggling to maintain its rocket
arsenal after Egypt cut its smuggling routes through the Sinai Peninsula.
these military disadvantages and the PA’s refusal to shoulder responsibility
for Gaza’s economic crisis, Sinwar has decided to build his strategy upon the
Israeli leadership’s clear preference for containment over war. Backed by the
Israel Defense Forces general staff, Netanyahu has repeatedly signaled his
readiness to help ease Gaza’s humanitarian crisis once calm is restored.
Sinwar has applied fluctuating degrees of pressure to achieve better terms from
Israel since March 2018, instigating weekly border clashes on Mondays and
Fridays under the slogan “March of Return.” Hamas has encouraged thousands
of protestors—but rarely its own cadres—to storm the Israeli security
barrier, with some elements throwing explosive charges at IDF soldiers, floating
incendiary balloons that have set large fires inside Israel, and occasionally
launching rocket salvos. Netanyahu ordered the IDF to prevent penetration of
Israeli positions and villages, yet its response has been calculated to avoid
both sides want a ceasefire. Netanyahu has received growing criticism for his
restraint, while Sinwar was excoriated for sending teenagers and unarmed
demonstrators to be killed or injured. Both would like to silence their
detractors by ending the cycle of violence.
new understandings, awaiting final touches, aim to quiet the border in return
for a multiyear Gaza aid package, to which donors have already pledged $300
million. Benefits would include:
the Trump administration goes forward with its stated intention of presenting
peace parameters this summer, the Palestinian political landscape could change
substantially. Hamas will say no to Trump, secure behind Israeli ceasefire
understandings, international economic assistance, and a likely boost to its
prestige in Gaza. The PA is bound to say no as well, but from a position of
weakness, isolation, and strained relations with Israel. This contrast would
give Hamas room to accelerate its infiltration of the West Bank. For its part,
Israel will likely let Washington absorb the negative Palestinian responses
before issuing one of its own.