The recent Israel-Gaza cross-border violence — which erupted in the wake of a botched Israeli reconnaissance raid in Gaza — resulted in a ceasefire despite the loss of life on both sides. The clear desire of both sides to refrain from further escalation keeps alive hopes that a more comprehensive ceasefire will be concluded.
– It is in the interests of both the Israeli government and Hamas to avoid a protracted confrontation, meaning that another war along the lines of what occurred in 2014 is unlikely to eventuate anytime soon
– However, any longer-term and more comprehensive ceasefire agreement is unlikely to be negotiated because of the growing right-wing political climate in Israel and the severe trust deficit between both sides
– Expect to see instances of relative calm punctuated by sporadic skirmishes
GAZA ON THE BRINK
Facing profound diplomatic isolation and a deepening humanitarian crisis, Hamas — the Islamist movement which has ruled Gaza since 2007 — is desperate to secure concessions from the Israelis. Being dragged into a broader war, as could have occurred in the latest flare-up, is the last thing that Hamas wants.
In recent years, Hamas has lost the patronage of Syria and received less support from Iran after the Palestinian movement refused to support the Assad regime during the Syrian civil war. Qatari cash has filled the void to some extent, but that route has been jeopardised by the Saudi-led blockade, which demanded that Doha cease supporting ‘terrorism.’
Likewise, Morsi’s Egypt has distanced itself from Hamas, closing the Rafah Border crossing and destroying smuggling routes into Gaza. Intra-Palestinian efforts at reconciliation have also failed miserably, and most of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) sanctions on Hamas remain in place, including cuts made to PA payments to Israel for Gaza’s electricity supply.
This diplomatic isolation, combined with the crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade, means that the territory is on the verge of collapse. Unemployment hovers around 50%, the economy is in recession, and basic services like electricity, sewage and water are under severe stress. To stay in power, Hamas knows it must secure concessions from Israel.
Somewhat ironically, the same Israeli security establishment that has undertaken three large-scale operations in Gaza since 2006 has come to be increasingly concerned about conditions in the Strip. Intelligence and military officials — often at odds with Israeli politicians — have recommended an easing of the blockade to avert another unwinnable war.
Following the ‘Great March of Return’ — a series of Palestinian protests that led to the deaths of over 150 Palestinians and millions of dollars of damage to Israeli farmland — Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to be on board with these recommendations. Specifically, Netanyahu allowed $15 million in Qatari cash to flow into Gaza to help pay civil servants and supplies of fuel to assist with the electricity crisis. As well as securing calm and quiet, Netanyahu hopes that these measures will ease the pressure on him to give more concessions to the Palestinians. Indeed, Netanyahu’s measures fit within the broader blueprint of what is known of Trump’s peace plan, which effectively promises Arab cash and investment in exchange for the Palestinian people’s effective forfeiture of their national aspirations.
There is also some speculation that the Hamas-Israeli détente will go beyond the injection of Qatari cash and the ceasefire. A draft released by Egyptian intelligence envisages Hamas stopping its border protests in exchange for measures including a significant easing of the blockade at both the Israeli and Egyptian crossings, the issuing of Israeli work permits to 5,000 Gazans and the creation of 30,000 jobs through energy and infrastructure projects. These concessions would form the basis of a long-term ceasefire. Undoubtedly, such a deal would be a significant diplomatic and political coup for Hamas.
NO WAR, NO PEACE
However, despite the desires of Hamas for a broader, more comprehensive ceasefire, it is unlikely this will materialise. Instead, expect to see a continuation of intermittent clashes. Having only a fragile hold on power in coalition with a variety of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu has been under severe pressure following his acceptance of the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire with Hamas. Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned from his post in protest of both the ceasefire and Netanyahu’s other perceived concessions to Hamas. Netanyahu’s Coalition partners Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — both members of the ultra-conservative Jewish Home Party — also expressed their vehement opposition to the ceasefire.
Seeking to appease these critics and reconsolidate his self-professed ‘Mr Security‘ image, Netanyahu left himself little room for manoeuvre when he ruled out making a formal deal with Hamas, arguing that to do so would be akin to making a deal with ISIS. Moreover, polls indicate that Netanyahu — assuming he survives the probe into his alleged corruption — will have to rely on the support of far-right to continue governing after the 2019 elections. Hence, it is very difficult to envisage Israel offering Hamas anything approximating the terms of the leaked draft agreement. There also exists a severe trust deficit between the two sides, and Netanyahu has reportedly expressed concerns that Hamas would use an easing of the blockade for offensive, military purposes.
Despite the benefits that such a deal would entail for Hamas, the Islamist movement is also said to be wary about formally signing any agreements. Given the state of play of Israeli politics and Tel Aviv’s poor record of abiding by ceasefires and international agreements, it is likely that Hamas fears that Israel could easily renege on any agreement, causing a severe loss of face for the Islamist movement. The leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, is known for his pragmatism, but is uncertain whether all Hamas members would be on board with any formal agreement with the movement’s sworn enemy. Although ISIS has a relatively small presence in the Strip, Hamas would likely fear losing members to more hard-line groups, particularly if Israel were to renege on any agreement.
Yet, despite the prospects for any wide-ranging agreement appearing slim, do not expect a return to full-scale hostilities. Given the conditions in Gaza, Hamas knows that another war with Israel would be both fruitless and devastating. The organisation’s eagerness to avoid being dragged into another confrontation was on full display when, in the most recent conflagration, it approached Israel asking for a ceasefire through no less than four different meditators.
Barring an unlikely election result where Netanyahu’s Likud party is ousted in favour of a coalition of far-right parties, it is difficult to see Israel wanting war either. Another war in Gaza would further isolate Israel from erstwhile allies like the EU, US Democrats and elements of the Jewish diaspora, who feel increasingly alienated from Israel. War would also likely torpedo or put on ice Netanyahu’s ongoing efforts to normalise ties with the Arab world and build an anti-Iran coalition. Finally, in the event of another devastating war, Israel might instead find itself facing an influx of desperate Gazan refugees. Jewish nationalism is on the rise in Israel, and most Israeli politicians would rather be confronted with the occasional burning kites and stone throwers than refugees.
Ultimately, the most likely scenario is that there will be a limited peace, punctuated by occasional skirmishes. If Likud is able to rule in its own right, Netanyahu may provide some more sweeteners to Hamas. However, the prime minister is no dove and will only concede the bare minimum to keep Gaza pacified. Any kind of sustainable peace thus remains a distant prospect.
Henry is a Middle East and North Africa team editor and analyst. From Damascus to Tel Aviv he will keep you up to date with all the important developments in the region.