Gaza, the Three Men Deciding on Peace or War.
by Janiki Cingoli, President of Italian Center for Peace in the Middle East (CIPMO)
Publication date: October 19, 2018
Published on the online magazine Huffington Post Italia, 19 October 2018
10,000 people took part again in anti-Israel manifestations in Gaza last Friday, but the majority of the participants kept away from the border, following the instructions previously given by Hamas, which had stated that it did not want to jeopardise the ongoing negotiations with Israel – thereby urging that “Palestinian blood should be preserved and saved for the establishment of the Palestinian state”. However, some groups made for the border burning tyres, throwing incendiary balloons and (in three cases) infiltrating Israel.
On Wednesday, two mid-range Grad rockets hit Israel’s central regions: a rocket damaged a building in Beersheba, while the other ended up into the sea. It was the first time since the outbreak of the manifestations that rockets of such range were utilised, as though they were meant to warn Israel of the danger that would loom over its population if the threatened Israeli large-scale operation was carried out.
In the meantime, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two strongest organisations and the only ones possessing that type of rockets, released a joint statement denying their involvement in these launches and declining any responsibility, therefore signalling that no party is trying to escalate the conflict. Meanwhile, a mission of the Egyptian secret services had been shuttling back and forth between Gaza, Jerusalem and Ramallah, in an effort to contain the possible military conflagration – in parallel with the intense diplomatic activity of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov.
As correctly pointed out by Ansehl Pfeiffer on Haaretz, Gaza’s destiny is in the hands of three men: Benjamin Netanyahu; Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in Gaza; and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority. None of them wants a new war in the Strip, but none of them has been able to halt the clashes so far.
Netanyahu wants to gain at least a year of peace and tranquillity, as next year’s anticipated elections are to be held in spring and, in case a war broke out, he does not want run for election with a high death toll and a high number of wounded, both in terms of civilians and soldiers. Moreover, Israel wants to complete the construction of an underground barrier that would stop the digging of tunnels infiltrating its territories. Not to mention that Israel is determined not to take over any responsibility regarding the administration of the Strip and the lives of two million desperate Palestinians. Finally, the Israeli Prime Minister is well aware of the international reactions – as well as the Arab world’s – that would ensue after a new large-scale operation.
On the other hand, a new war in Gaza would not alter the existing situation, since Netanyahu knows that eradicating Hamas from Gaza could only mean making room for even more extremist jihadi groups. Israel’s military chiefs made this point very clear. Besides, Netanyahu prefers the existence of two separate Palestinian entities over a single Palestinian entity, as this wakens the counterpart and reduces the chances of negotiations being resumed.
The indirect negotiations that have taken place in Cairo in the last few months thanks to the mediation of the Egyptian security services have made remarkable progress, going so far as to define a bilateral agreement that would provide for the restoration of peace, the re-opening of the Palestinian border crossings with Israel and Egypt, the negotiations (at a later stage) regarding an exchange of prisoners, the declaration of a five-year truce. Other provisions of the draft included, inter alia, emergency measures aimed at improving the living conditions in Gaza and breaking its isolation – for instance by utilising a port in Cyprus or in Egypt –, and the construction of an airport. These are the very same commitments made after the 2014 war (called Operation Protective Edge by the Israelis) and that remained completely unimplemented.
To these elements Qatar’s contributing must be added, since that that Gulf monarchy has pledged to pay for the fuel needed to extend power supply in Gaza to 8 hours per day from the current 4 hours per day, as well as to pay for the salaries of the civil servants hired by Hamas in recent years, thereby bypassing the sanctions imposed by President Abbas with the aim of forcing Hamas to hand over the control of Gaza.
However, it is difficult for Netanyahu to agree to a long-lasting truce with Hamas while bypassing president Abbas, neglecting Saudi qualms about the involvement of Qatar, and without obtaining in the very first round of negotiations the restitution of the corpse of the deceased Israeli soldier and the release of the two civilians held captive by Hamas. All this would expose Netanyahu to the attacks of his right-wing competitors, within and outside the Likud (in particular Naftali Bennet, leader of HaBayit HaYehudi, the Jewish Home, who aspire to replace Netanyahu), who accuse the current prime minister of having lost the deterrence capability that was granted by the previous conflict.
For his part, Yahya Sinwar – and the Hamas leadership on its whole – is aware of these Israeli contradictions and use it to his own advantage. In Hamas’s eyes, restoring the situation of relative stability that used to be in place before 28th March (i.e. when the manifestation started) is not enough: Hamas leaders believe that Israel is sensitive only to the use of force, but they intend to use the force gradually and to keep tension under the crisis level, mindful of the terrible losses suffered by the Palestinian population and military forces in the previous wars. What they want is essentially a change in the deterrence equation, replacing Israel’s unilateral deterrence with a mutual deterrence system.
This is why Hamas reduced the number of manifestations when an agreement was about to be reached in Cairo (a detailed draft of the agreement had been written on that occasion), only to rekindle tensions when negotiations were suspended after President Abbas’s intervention.
Sinwar wants to establish a long-lasting truce that could stabilise Hamas’s control over the Strip, which does not mean recognising Israel and accepting the idea of dividing the historical Palestine, and, in this respect, his vision coincides with the Netanyahu’s – who prefers to avoid any negotiation on the Final Status. Sinwar looks beyond Gaza and Hamas and sees himself as a potential leader of the whole Palestinian movement, as Abbas’s successor, as a new Arafat.
In any case, Abbas is isolated, given his fracture with the USA, his marginalisation within the Arab world and the disrepute he has fallen into in the West Bank. If his attempt on blocking the negotiations held in Cairo was met at first with some success, he is now facing great risks, as the Egyptians are sick and tired of his obstructionism. It is high time decisions were made.
The fate of Gaza will be determined in these days: between peace and war lies a very slippery slope.
NOTES ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janiki Cingoli has dealt with international issues since 1975. Since 1982 he has begun to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, promoting the first occasions in Italy for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and in 1989 he founded in Milan the Italian Center for Peace in the Middle East (CIPMO), which has since directed until 2017 when he was elected President.