- Various events and trends in the Gaza Strip at present ought to be appropriately contextualised in terms of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire in June.
- Cairo has demonstrated its resolve to tackle weapons smuggling into Gaza more forcefully, but Hamas’s control presents an ongoing challenge both to Egyptian and Israeli officials, which is not getting any easier to manage.
- The recent outbreak of sectarian violence in Gaza is a reminder of Hamas’s consolidated grip on the balance of terror and, more broadly, the complexity of Palestinian-Israeli affairs at present.
- Israel’s commitment to ensuring that a humanitarian crisis is averted in Gaza has been made easier since the ceasefire was agreed, but whether and in what form more extensive arrangements at border crossings will come into effect remains unclear and is hindered primarily by Hamas’s intransigence on related issues.
- Hamas’s critical need for public support might make it more amenable to policies which deliver benefits to ordinary Gazans. However, from Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority’s perspectives, further conflict remains likely as long as radical militants wield too much power.
Last week, Egypt discovered 20 underground tunnels in the weapons smuggling infrastructure upon which Hamas (the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) relies, as well as an 800 metre fuel pipeline, running under its border with Gaza. The fortnight before that witnessed the most violent sectarianism to have damaged prospects for Palestinian national reconciliation since Hamas seized control of Gaza just over a year ago. Indeed the split between Hamas and the Palestinian authority has arguably deepened. Meanwhile, despite Hamas’s focus on military rearmament, Israel is abiding by its commitment to increase humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
This brief focuses on these contrasting events and trends as the most significant developments occurring since the Cairo-brokered Israel-Hamas ceasefire, or tahdiyeh (the more accurate Arabic term used to describe the temporary lull in fighting), in June. In no small measure due to Egypt’s integral and ongoing role, the lull continues to endure, albeit precariously, almost two months after being agreed. The natural inclination for a casual observer might be to conclude that upon successful implementation of any ceasefire agreement between warring parties, they are on the path to some form of reconciliation. The reality in the case of Israel and Hamas, however, is that the present interest each side has in the lull partially obscures the growing complexity of the situation and propensity for conflict to re-emerge.
Egypt‘s key role in sustaining the Gaza calm
In the year between Hamas’s violent coup in Gaza in June 2007 and the June 2008 tahdiyeh, the relationship between neighbouring Israel and Egypt has been juxtaposed by mutual interest on one side, and growing tensions on the other. Indeed a shared mutual interest has developed as both Israel and Egypt remain perturbed by Hamas’s consolidation of its power base, which offers a strategic foothold for a radical terror group with close ties to Iran in their respective backyards. However, diplomatic tensions have also mounted, particularly regarding the need for Egypt to halt terrorists smuggling weapons between Sinai and Gaza.
The Israeli intelligence community has itself been divided with respect to assessments about Egypt’s efforts. Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin believes the Egyptians have intensified their anti-smuggling activity whereas Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin is more cynical, for instance citing evidence of four tons of explosives and at least 50 anti-tank missiles being smuggled into Gaza since the ceasefire was adopted.[i] As such, news last week that Egypt has uncovered 20 underground border tunnels, seized thousands of gallons of fuel, and arrested four smugglers believed to be laying an 800-metre fuel pipeline, is perceived as a significant development by Israeli policymakers.[ii] It demonstrates greater assertiveness on Cairo’s part to counter illegal activities on its side of the Philadelphi corridor.
Nonetheless, Israel remains alarmed by the pace of Hamas’s military rearmament using the tunnels. Recent media interviews with local traders have provided colourful insights into the extent of the tunnels network for importing contraband weapons, fuel, cigarettes, commercial goods and even exotic animals for the Rafah zoo.[iii] The competitive market has afforded various tunnel operators to charge different fees in an infrastructure estimated at around 250 passages snaking under the notoriously porous border.[iv]
In short, the Gaza tunnels are big business. They have enabled Hamas to multiply several times over its more advanced Grad and Katyusha rocket stocks since the last bout of conflict with Israel ended.[v] Egypt may have felt uncomfortable about acting against Hamas and rendering tunnels unusable in the midst of ongoing fighting, but its mediation of the ceasefire ultimately created an incentive to do so. Cairo knows it must stem the flow of rearmament if it wants the lull to endure.
Moreover, it has local and strategic interests in containing Hamas. A strong Hamas is a worrisome inspiration to domestic extremists at an uncertain time for Egypt politically. Egypt also suffers underlying sectarian tensions between the Coptic Christian minority and the Muslim majority, and socioeconomic problems caused by worsening stagflation. More broadly, Egypt takes pride in its regional status and is concerned with stability in the Arab world, which Iran in particular seeks to undermine. An Egyptian diplomat recently commented, “Teheran and Damascus are unhappy with the truce agreement we achieved last month. They don’t want Egypt to play any key role in the region.”[vi] For Israel and the west, however, Egypt’s role is clearly paramount.
The re-emergence of Fatah-Hamas hostilities
Ironically, the lull with Israel reopened the door to the deadliest expression of simmering rivalry between the two main Palestinian camps since Hamas seized control. Internecine fighting followed a series of explosions on 24 and 25 July, including at a beach-side cafe popular among Hamas supporters, in which five Hamas militants and a four-year-old girl were killed. Hamas reacted by purging Fatah adversaries from the Strip and violence peaked in the Saja’iya neighbourhood of Gaza City on 2 August.[vii] Hamas reportedly fired around 300 mortar shells and dozens of RPGs to forcibly detain operatives suspected of being shielded by the Hilles hamula, an influential local clan associated with, though by no means entirely loyal to, Fatah. According to the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, violence that day left nine people dead, including two Hamas militants, and at least 90 wounded, including 12 children.[viii]
Subsequently, approximately 180 pro-Fatah activists fleeing Hamas were permitted to enter Israel on humanitarian grounds.[ix] IDF soldiers tended to 22 wounded men, some of whom required further treatment and were hospitalised. Others were transferred to Jericho in coordination between the Israeli Ministry of Defence and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad after it became apparent that returning them to Gaza would endanger their lives.[x]
These scenes provided a rare tangible demonstration of Israel’s cooperation with the moderate Palestinian leadership, a relationship which tends to remain behind closed doors in secret negotiations with the PA. They do not, however, significantly alter the balance of terror in Gaza. With swift retribution, Hamas illustrated the depth of its control and, in the eyes of many Palestinians, compounded Fatah’s humiliation in forcing Fatah men to run to the IDF for protection. Clearly, the peaceable return of Gaza to the hands of Fatah/the Palestinian Authority is unattainable in such circumstances, presenting an intractable problem for them. As Mohammad Darawshe, co-director of the Abraham Fund, which promotes co-existence and equality in Israel, observed: “Hamas might win the battle but this behaviour makes it so much harder to win international support to create an independent state. This is the behaviour of a brutal dictatorship, not a political party working towards advancing the interests of its people.”[xi] As Jerusalem’s correspondent for The New York Times Ethan Bronner assessed, these developments highlight “the complex set of relationships and shifting alliances that help explain why this conflict remains so difficult to resolve.”[xii]
The humanitarian situation in ceasefire conditions
Despite Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of all troops and settlements from Gaza three years ago, Hamas, since seizing power in June 2007, has fired over 3,000 rockets and mortar bombs at southwestern Israeli communities.[xiii]
Notwithstanding this terror campaign, and attacks by Hamas precisely on those crossings Israel must use to transfer supplies, Israel remains committed to averting a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, where living conditions are extremely tough for many of the 1.4 million residents.
Indeed, the June ceasefire included provisions for an immediate increase in the humanitarian aid and other products entering Gaza from Israel. Since then, the number of trucks passing through the Sufa and Karni crossings has increased to levels approximating those prior to the 19 April attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing (after which transfers were reduced).[xiv] So, for instance, on 5 August, 1,063,000 litres of fuel and 110 tons of heating oil were delivered via the Nahal Oz crossing, 8,927 tons of supplies were unloaded in 279 trucks at the Karni and Sufa crossings and 55 people were taken for medical treatment in Israel.[xv] Recently, in addition to food, medicines and fuel, Israel has been transporting construction materials such as cement and steel.[xvi] In sum, 28,112 trucks carrying 654,991 tons of humanitarian aid were transferred between 16 June and 16 July 2008.[xvii] Haaretz correspondent Amir Oren notes that three and a half times more food and goods are now entering Gaza daily than during the period before the lull.[xviii]
It remains unclear whether and in what form more extensive arrangements at border crossings will come into effect. Hamas officials have criticised Egypt for not opening the Rafah terminal between Sinai and Gaza since the ceasefire, but Hamas is unwilling to adopt the terms of the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, which Egypt demands be upheld.[xix] It stipulates monitoring roles for the EU, PA and Israel, which Hamas finds unacceptable. Furthermore, there has been no substantive progress towards a prisoner swap which would see the return of IDF Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by militants over two years ago. This matter is inextricably connected to Israel’s Gaza policy more broadly, as Hamas well knows. Hamas is keen to exact the highest price possible in terms of Palestinian prisoners to be freed by Israel in an exchange, but it also sees the soldier as a means of restricting Israeli operations. Aware of his strategic value, Hamas is in no hurry whatsoever to negotiate. In any scenario, Hamas is likely to pin Shalit’s release to a prior concession by Egypt on more favourable terms for reopening the Rafah terminal which connote Hamas’s authority.
Almost two months since an agreement was reached on the terms of the tahdiyeh, developments are unfolding which continue to reflect the asymmetries of power among the primaries actors involved.
Egypt’s key role in maintaining a workable ceasefire has been highlighted and Israel will continue to work closely with its Arab partners to try to hamper Hamas’s rearmament and contain the Islamist threat. Further Cairo meetings have been scheduled in which Amos Gilead, Head of the Political-Security Bureau at the Israeli Ministry of Defence, and Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman will discuss plans for an enhanced security fence between Sinai and Gaza. Direct Israeli involvement in the border project is unlikely, but Egypt has accepted assistance by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering with detection equipment and training. A redefined role for the EU in light of new realities and the closed Rafah crossing is also worth exploring.
Hamas’s critical need for public support might make it more amenable to policies which deliver benefits to ordinary Gazans over coming months, with regards to humanitarian aid transfers and perhaps some form of reconciliation with its Fatah rivals. However, it will doubtless continue to lay the blame for Gaza’s difficulties at the feet of Israel, Egypt and the PA and proceed to prepare for future encounters with its opponents both internally and externally. This remains the likely eventual consequence of Hamas’s all-too-powerful position in the eyes of each of its closest neighbours.
[iii] Diaa Hadid and Ashraf Sweilam, ‘Not just guns: Gazans smuggle lions into zoo’, Associated Press, 9 August 2008.
[iv] ‘Egypt discovers 20 tunnels, oil pipeline to Gaza’, World Tribune, 8 August 2008.
[vi] Khaled Abu Toameh, ‘Analysis: Egypt enraged over Hamas claims it isn’t honest broker’, Jerusalem Post, 20 July 2008.
[viii] ‘Quiet reigns after a bloody day in Gaza City’, Ma’an News Agency, 2 August 2008.
[ix] ‘Assistance in Passage of Fatah Members Escaping Hamas’, IDF Spokesman’s website, 4 August 2008.
[xii] Ethan Bronner, ‘In Gaza, a Blurry Line Between Enemies and Friends’, The New York Times, 5 August 2008.
[xiii] ‘A year since the Hamas takeover of Gaza’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 16 June 2008.
[xiv] ‘Summary – one month of calm’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 27 July 2008.
[xvii] ‘Humanitarian assistance to Gaza since Feb 27 escalation in terror’, Unit of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), 1 August 2008.
[xix] Khaled Abu Toameh, ‘Analysis: Egypt enraged over Hamas claims it isn’t honest broker’, Jerusalem Post, 20 July 2008.