Gaza ceasefire with Hamas's divided leadership might not last the day — only the World Cup final

No one wants to ruin the football, but there are many reasons why the Gaza ceasefire may crumble within hours, writes Anshel Pfeffer

July 15, 2018 13:34

A wary ceasefire finally came into effect in the early hours of Sunday morning, following a Shabbat in which 200 rockets and mortar shells were fired from on Israeli villages and towns.

But it still was not clear which Hamas Israel is now facing. Is this the Hamas that is trying to reach a long-term ceasefire for the benefit of Gaza’s people, or the Hamas that is Iran’s proxy and working up towards a major escalation?

“We will know what Hamas is up to tonight,” one Israeli observer said wearily.

“No one in Gaza wants to ruin the World Cup final. What do people have there, besides football? But once France-Croatia is over, we’ll see what they are actually aiming for”.

The latest escalation began on Friday afternoon when an Israeli officer was wounded by a hand grenade thrown at an armoured patrol on the Gaza border.

In response, Israel carried out a number of airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza, including two tunnels.

This was followed by a series of salvos from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad throughout Shabbat, interspersed by more, larger-scale Israeli sorties.

The Palestinians limited their fire to targets in the near vicinity of the Gaza Strip, while Israel intentionally bombed unmanned Hamas installations.

But the deaths of two Palestinian teenagers in one of the airstrikes and the three Israelis wounded outside a synagogue in Sderot were a reminder that once the tempo of rocket launches and airstrikes increases, the casualty numbers go up.

By evening, Egyptian intelligence had brokered an unofficial truce and the ceasefire resumed. No one can say for how long.

In Cairo, the deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau Musa Abu Marzook was in talks for a long-term truce, which would include an easing of the closure of Gaza and the start of major infrastructure projects there.

But at the same time his colleagues — political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, who doubles as both military chief and prime minister — were holed up in Gaza, preparing for another escalation.

Hamas’s strategy is unclear.

Part of its leadership is intent on reaching a settlement with Israel, through Egypt and perhaps also Qatar, to improve the situation in Gaza and provide the movement with a political horizon.

Others are coordinating with Iran, which wants another conflagration in Gaza that would serve as a diversion from Iran’s attempts to consolidate its strongholds in Syria.

Those on both sides who are truly interested in a long-term ceasefire need to be able to tangible achievements show to their own constituencies.

Israel is facing elections soon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu are both worried about losing right-wing voters to Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home.

Any deal with Hamas will be politically unpalatable if does not include the immediate return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and the Israeli civilians currently held in Gaza.

In the longer-term, Israel insists that Hamas dismantle its arsenal in return for opening Gaza up to regular trade and emigration.

Hamas is loath to concede without a corresponding gesture from Israel, such as the release of Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails.

The deadlock is intensified by the economic pressure that Hamas’s biggest enemy — the Palestinian Authority’s president Mahmoud — Abbas is exerting. He does not want to see a deal over Gaza that bypasses him.

As it stands, the ceasefire does not cover the continuing campaign of burning kites and balloons that have ignited dozens of blazes in southern Israel.

The Israeli government and at least part of the Hamas leadership has no interest in another escalation, but neither side seems capable right now of preventing one — perhaps as soon as the World Cup ends.

July 15, 2018 13:34

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