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On the Proposed “Truce” between Hamas and Israel

Jul 12, 2015

 Assessment Report
Policy Analysis Unit (group of researchers)
Supervision by Dr. Azmi Bishara
Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies

Introduction
 
There has been a spate of recent reports concerning Israeli-approved contacts between international envoys and officials from Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, over a potential truce of fixed duration between Israel and the Palestinian resistance groups in the Gaza Strip, in exchange for the lifting of the Israeli siege on Gaza which has lasted for more than eight years. The credibility of these reports has been boosted by the recent statements of Ismail Haniyeh, deputy chair of Hamas’ political bureau, that “Israel has informed certain parties [he did not name them] that it will not launch a new war on the Gaza Strip.” He went on to say, addressing the people of Gaza, “Good news, relief is at hand. The coming stage will be good for the steadfast people of Gaza.”[1]
 
With regard to Israel, there has also been repeated talk of discussions being conducted by Qatari and Egyptian officials over a potential five-year ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.[2] Indeed, former British premier Tony Blair has been acting as mediator.
 
Hamas spokesperson in Gaza Sami Abu Zahri confirmed that the group had received “ideas” concerning a possible ceasefire, but without clear proposals.[3] There are general negotiations over agreeing a relatively long-term ceasefire to replace, or renew, the agreement that ended hostilities signed in August 2014. That agreement ended 51 days of Israeli aggression against Gaza, and it was supposed to provide for the lifting of the siege on Gaza and permit reconstruction. At the time, the possibility of allowing the construction of a seaport for Gaza was also discussed, but an understanding with Egypt enabled Israel to evade implementing any of the agreement’s conditions.
 
In the current discussions, Hamas is focusing on the issues that facilitate daily life for the Gazan population. Conditions for a ceasefire, its length, and other details have yet to be dealt with. Neither recognition of Israel nor the demand that Hamas decommission its arsenal, particularly its rockets, are on the table.[4]
 
Talk of a Truce: Why Now?
 
A number of reasons are pushing Hamas and Israel to accept a fixed-term truce whose general outline includes a ceasefire and a lifting of the blockade on Gaza. These reasons include those in common between a number of parties, namely Hamas, Israel, Egypt, the European Union (EU), and the United States, and those of particular concern to Hamas and Israel individually.
 
1. Hamas’ Motivations
 
Hamas may be trying to reach a relatively long-term truce with Israel, but this does not mean it will pay any price to do so. The movement still insists on its refusal to recognize Israel and will not agree to disarm.
 
Hamas is going through a major crisis in the administration of the Gaza Strip, which has been under Israeli and Egyptian siege for more than eight years (Cairo under the rule of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has tightened restrictions). In addition to the blockade, there have been three major Israeli assaults on Gaza—in 2008/9, 2012, and 2014. Hamas, therefore, does not want to be drawn into another destructive battle with Israel. Furthermore, the Palestinian “national reconciliation”, which Hamas dictated and which is embodied in the April 2014 Shati Agreement and led to the formation of a “national unity government”, has not been implemented in practice. It has not brought relief to the Gaza Strip, and the blockade has not been lifted against a backdrop of continuing disagreement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas. Because the PA refuses to ensure Israel’s compliance with the truce agreement signed in August 2014, as well as the decisions of the Gaza Reconstruction Conference held in Cairo in October 2014, Hamas finds itself obliged to go it alone by means of indirect negotiations with Israel. In fact, Hamas political bureau member Musa Abu Marzouq hinted last September that Hamas might well find itself forced to negotiate directly with Israel.[5] However, the Hamas political bureau was quick to release a short statement confirming that direct talks with the Zionist enemy was not a Hamas policy and “not under consideration, given the policy adopted by the movement.”[6]
 
The Hamas authorities in Gaza are fearful of a loss of popular support as a result of shortages, the siege, and lack of prospects. If the Gaza Strip erupts, however, it will not erupt in the face of Hamas alone, but also in the face of Israel and Egypt. As a result, Israeli fears of an explosion in Gaza intersect with Hamas’ fears. This makes Israel more pragmatic than the Egyptian administration, which is constrained by the internal conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, when it comes to dealing with the siege.
 
2. Israeli Motivations
 
Israel’s motives are shaped by the absence of any realistic options for dealing with the Gaza Strip. An eight-year siege as well as three destructive and vicious assaults over the last six years have not led to the fall of Hamas or a popular uprising against it. In fact, Hamas has proved that it has emerged stronger after each battle with Israel. Its missiles today threaten the furthest reaches of Israel, as demonstrated in the war last summer, and any future conflict would be extremely costly. In the face of this dilemma, for Israel to destroy the military capabilities of Gaza would require the complete reoccupation of the area, which would lead to street fighting in densely-populated areas and come at a high cost for Israel. Reoccupation would also make Israel responsible for the devastated Gaza Strip and the needs of its inhabitants. Because causing a leadership vacuum in Gaza is not in Israel’s interests—since that might mean the expansion of extremist groups of a kind that pay no attention to political or military considerations—Israel might find itself obliged to agree to a temporary truce with Hamas. This is made more likely by the existence of precedents in 2008, 2012, and 2014.
 
A third reason can be found in the hints from Hamas that it is holding Israeli soldiers captive, either living or dead. Israel may wish to start negotiations to determine their fate and obtain their release or the return of remains.[7]
 
3. Intersecting Motivations
 
One of the common motives for reaching a truce is the fear of ISIL’s expansion in the Arab region and the threat it represents to all parties concerned, including the United States, the EU, Israel, and Egypt on one hand, and Hamas on the other. ISIL today is approaching the historical borders of Palestine from Syria in the north and Egypt, via Sinai, in the south. For Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, ISIL could represent a real challenge to its rule and control, particularly after the recent threats made by ISIL against Hamas and its declaration of intent to overthrow the authorities in Gaza.[8] Hamas’ fears are multiplied by ISIL’s efforts to provoke a new Israeli attack on Gaza by using people associated with it to fire rockets into Israel.[9]
 
Israel’s assessment seems to be that Hamas remaining in control of Gaza is the lesser of two evils, given the absence of any PA presence there.[10] Weakening Hamas now would mean the expansion of ISIL and other small groups with absolutely no sense of responsibility or rationality. Though Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, has resisted three major Israeli wars on Gaza, and continues to resist, the group has demonstrated over the years of its rule in Gaza that it understands the limits and rules of the game, especially with regard to the fate of the nearly two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip who need security, stability, and the reconstruction of what Israel has destroyed over past years.
 
The same considerations apply to Egypt. The bloody attacks carried out in recent months by the ISIL-affiliated Sinai Province against the Egyptian security forces may have encouraged Egypt’s decision makers to conclude that a strong Hamas in Gaza is in their interests at this stage, though without implying that Hamas is no longer an “enemy” or target of the Egyptian regime, and without Cairo abandoning its practice of blaming events in Sinai on the Gaza Strip for demagogic purposes. Neither does Egypt want to lose Gaza as a card to play internationally. Nervous about Hamas’ moves in the international arena outside of Egyptian channels, Cairo may seek a minimal understanding with Hamas.
 
At the beginning of last month, an Egyptian court, at the instigation of the government, overturned the ruling that designated Hamas a terrorist group, which may well be a sign of a shift in the Egyptian position. The recent decision by the Egyptian regime to reopen the Rafah crossing more than once, and for a number of days, after months of closure, should also not be ignored.[11] Ismail Haniyeh spoke a few days ago about an easing in relations between Hamas and the Egyptians authorities, indicating in the same context that this easing “has helped to change the humanitarian situation in Gaza.”[12] The significance of Haniyeh’s remarks on relations with Egypt lies in their timing; they came after the major attack by Sinai Province which resulted in the deaths of dozens of Egyptian soldiers at the beginning of this month.
 
Regarding the United States, Washington is trying to unify regional efforts for the fight against ISIL. Accordingly, it may not want another military confrontation between Israel and Gaza that could affect the cohesion of the international coalition against ISIL that includes Arab states and Turkey. This could account for Washington’s endorsement of efforts to reach a truce. The Europeans are fearful of an eruption in Gaza that might result in thousands of refugees taking to the Mediterranean.[13]
 
Conclusion
 
On the basis of the above, the proposed truce is in the joint interests of all parties, Hamas and Israel in particular. If a truce is agreed, Hamas will not be forced to recognize Israel or give up its weapons, and it refuses to allow the truce to morph into political negotiations. If the conditions for the truce include a seaport, this will contribute to freeing Hamas and the Gaza Strip from the siege and its accompanying political blackmail. For Israel, the truce gives it calm on its southern border and reduces the chances of Gaza erupting as a result of the siege and the appalling humanitarian situation. Achieving a truce would also be in everyone’s interest in confronting the threat of ISIL and its associated trends. None of the above implies, however, that the truce is a certainty or imminent. The various positions and conflicting calculations of the parties may make reaching a truce difficult. For Israel to accept the continued presence of armed resistance in the Gaza Strip is no easy matter, and equally, for Hamas to agree to disarm is impossible. Furthermore, the PA does not look kindly on such a move, and has raised objections to the contacts between Hamas and Israel and may try to make them fail. Most significantly of all, given Blair’s record in his capacity as Quartet envoy, contacts may produce an attempt to contain Hamas by its incorporation within the “peace process” as a way to resolve issues of daily life in Gaza. There can, however, be no reliance on Israeli promises, since decades of experience have shown that it does not adhere to agreements.
  • [1] “Haniyeh signals a truce with the occupation and an easing with Egypt,” Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, July 5, 2015, at: http://goo.gl/g3Dm1t.
  • [2] Nidal al-Maghribi, “A long-term truce in Gaza under discussion as Hamas and Israel enter into confrontation with extremist groups,” Reuters, June 17, 2015, at:
    http://ara.reuters.com/article/topNews/idARAKBN0OX28R20150617.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] David Hearst, “EXCLUSIVE: Blair met Khaled Meshaal to negotiate end of Gaza siege,” Middle East Eye, June 21, 2015, at: http://goo.gl/WR58Vj.
  • [5] Osama Abu Arshid, “The Hamas whirlwind and ‘negotiations’ with Israel,” Al-Araby Al-Jadid, September 20, 2014, at: http://goo.gl/3y06R2.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] David Hearst, “Why Tony Blair Is Talking to Hamas’ Khaled Meshaal,”The Huffington Post, June 21, 2015, at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-hearst/why-tony-blair-is-talking_b_7634070.html.
  • [8] “’Islamic State’ threatens to bring down Hamas in Gaza,” Al-Hayat, July 1, 2015, at: http://goo.gl/rbs9Xx.
  • [9] Al-Maghribi.
  • [10] Hearst, “Why Tony Blair Is Talking to Hamas' Khaled Meshaal.”
  • [11] Al-Maghribi.
  • [12] “Haniyeh signals a truce with the occupation and an easing with Egypt.”
  • [13] Hearst, “Why Tony Blair Is Talking to Hamas' Khaled Meshaal.”

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