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Gaza steps back from brink as UN works for stronger Israel-Hamas deal

Why We Wrote This

It's mostly quiet on the Israel-Gaza front. But there are doubts that a return to the status quo ante will deliver the stability residents crave. Are political leaders capable of bolder action?

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinians take to the water Aug. 18 to protest the Israeli blockade on Gaza. After a summer of alternating tension and calm, Hamas and Israel have sought to step back from the brink of what had seemed like an inevitable conflagration, four years after fighting a monthlong summer war.

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Months of violent Gaza demonstrations, incendiary kite launches, and rocket fire have eased or gone silent, and Israel has mostly reopened commercial crossings in Gaza that were shuttered in retaliation. Following the worst instability since a monthlong Israel-Hamas war in 2014, the two sides have sought to step back from the brink. “Hamas wants relief from the economic pressures they’re facing,’’ says Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel. “Israel wants an end to the border conflicts ­– and that creates the incentives for an agreement.” But Ambassador Shapiro and other experts note a return to previous agreements, without addressing Gaza’s ailing economy, isn’t likely to produce a lasting peace. Weeks of indirect, UN-mediated negotiations between Israel and Hamas have spurred talk of a broader, more ambitious truce. But analysts say such a deal requires two bold political moves that have seemed unattainable: mutual de facto recognition by Israel and Hamas. Nickolay Mladenov, the UN mediator, said donors supporting Gaza would not continue to do so without a credible political horizon. “This cannot be another futile exercise in conflict management and recurring humanitarian support,” he said.

After four months of mortar fire, brush fires, and fears of a wider war between Israel and Hamas, a fragile cease-fire has been taking hold along the Gaza-Israel frontier over the last few days.

But even as civilians on both sides express a desire for calm and stability, and as indirect talks resurrect previously employed practical arrangements, the question remains as to whether a more durable peace can be achieved without bolder political decisions on both sides.

With her ears still ringing from rocket sirens, Yael Lachyani, a spokeswoman for Kibbutz Nahal Oz, says she is still on edge and can’t be sure the fighting is over.

“This summer has been confusing. One day we wonder if we should get ready to leave our home because a war is going to start, and then we wake up in the morning and the press says we have a return to calm,’’ says Ms. Lachyani. “No one wants a military operation, but we also don’t want a situation where we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow.”

Months of violent demonstrations and incendiary kite launches have eased, rocket fire has gone silent, and Israel has mostly reopened commercial crossings in Gaza that were shuttered in retaliation.

Both Hamas and Israel have sought to step back from the brink of what had seemed like an inevitable conflagration following the worst period of instability since Israel and Hamas fought a monthlong war in the summer of 2014.

“It’s clear that both the Israeli government and the Hamas leadership want to avoid a full-scale conflict,’’ says Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “Hamas wants relief from the economic pressures they’re facing. Israel wants an end to the border conflicts ­– and that creates the incentives for an agreement.”

The question is, how robust of an agreement? The current calm is based on a return to a series of informal understandings that ended the 2014 war. But Ambassador Shapiro and other experts note that such an agreement is likely to be short lived because it doesn’t address the economic conditions in Gaza, a blockaded narrow swath of coastline with about 2 million residents and 54 percent unemployment.

Before the current calm took hold, both sides seemed on the brink of war. Hamas fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel, including into the city of Beersheva for the first time since the 2014 war. Israel shuttered commercial crossings, blocked medical supplies and fuel from entering Gaza, and leveled a five-story apartment building it said was connected to Hamas.

UN-mediated talks

For its part, Israel’s defense establishment is interested in avoiding a fourth war with Hamas in 10 years, analysts say. Instead of Gaza, its top priority is Iran’s entrenchment in Syria as the civil war winds down there.

Defense officials “are concerned that the conditions in Gaza will lead to more violence directed at Israel,’’ Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University, writes in an email, “so they support both steps that will alleviate humanitarian concerns and will create mechanisms that help stabilize the situation and diminish the chances for violence.”

Weeks of indirect talks between Israel and Hamas mediated by the United Nations have spurred talk of a broader, more ambitious truce that would boost investment in Gaza’s badly ailing economy. Important components include fixing broken infrastructure, giving Gazans work permits in Israel, and perhaps green-lighting plans for a seaport.

A truce deal might also involve the return of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held in Gaza since 2014. Egyptian mediators have also been talking with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to encourage a reconciliation of the 11-year rift with Hamas as part of the deal with Israel. Efforts by the two main Palestinian factions to reconcile have failed repeatedly.

Mutual recognition

But, say analysts, such a broad deal, euphemistically referred to in Israel as an “arrangement,” would have to involve two bold political moves that have seemed unattainable: Israel’s de facto recognition of Hamas’s rule in Gaza and similar Hamas recognition of Israel.

In a July 25 briefing to the UN Security Council, Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process who has been mediating the Israel-Hamas talks, said humanitarian donors supporting Gaza would not continue to do so without a credible political horizon.

“This cannot be another futile exercise in conflict management and recurring humanitarian support,” he said in a statement.

Accepting Hamas’s status would mark a watershed for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both of whom vowed before taking office that they would order the army to retake Gaza and overthrow Hamas as a response to the rocket fire.

The two leaders have been taking flak from hardliners like Naftali Bennett, of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, who warned in a television interview that a cease-fire with Hamas would amount to a “surrender” that buys Hamas time to get stronger before a new round of fighting. Mr. Bennett expressed support for an all-out bombing campaign to “squash” Hamas.

That’s a long way from mutual recognition.

“In order to reach a broader agreement, you have to touch on ideological issues. Hamas would have to recognize Israel,’’ says Amir Tibon, a diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper, referring to a consensus among analysts that even an informal, unspoken recognition would be understood on both sides as a coming to terms with each other.

And Israel would have to drop its efforts to isolate Hamas politically and oppose Palestinian reconciliation, he says. “The next time the Palestinians want a unity government, what can you say? That Israel can do an agreement with Hamas but Abbas can’t?”

'People with sad faces'

On Tuesday, Israeli news reports quoted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as saying that “we are on the way to ending the blockade on Gaza.”

Gisha, an Israeli non-profit advocating for freedom of movement for Palestinians, warned in a statement that the restrictions have been “dangerous” by exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Despite the calm, there have been isolated Palestinian demonstrations at the border and shooting at Israeli soldiers. In retaliation, Israel closed the pedestrian crossing in the northern Gaza Strip.

“The people who have been demonstrating at the border are from Hamas,’’ says a Palestinian taxi driver in Gaza who declined to give his name for fear of punishment by the Hamas government. “Most people want a truce, they don’t care with who. They want to lift the siege already. You see people with sad faces. I’m one of them.”

'The south is burning'

Frustrated by weeks of uncertainty, groups of Israeli residents from the Gaza region took to the streets over the weekend, protesting in central Tel Aviv over the ongoing instability. Holding signs reading “the south is burning,” they called on the government to find a long-term solution to fighting.

Mr. Tibon, who lived for several years at Nahal Oz before moving to Washington, D.C., says that since the end of the 2014 war there has been an influx of several hundred new residents to the region bordering Gaza, and an expansion of building and restaurants. A war would halt that expansion.

“It’s quiet now, but that can change at any moment,’’ says Ofer Liebman, the agricultural directorof Kibbutz Nir Am, which also borders Gaza. While Mr. Liebman says he would be supportive of a long-term deal to lift Israel’s 11-year old blockade on Gaza if the cease-fire lasts, he says prospects for a sustained quiet are “minimal.’’

Suggesting support for a broad agreement, Lachyani, the Nahal Oz spokeswoman, says she’s hoping that the sides can reach an agreement for as long as possible so that residents on both sides of the border can get back to building up their communities. For now, she pines for the stability to go back to a routine for herself and her sleepless daughter.

“I need a couple of weeks to bring back the confidence that she can sleep with the lights off,’’ Lachiyani says. “I want to go back to a normal life where I get up, go to work, and don’t have to spend a couple of hours in the safe room. And I believe that the Palestinians need that as well.’’

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