BICOM Webinar | Ehud Yaari on the Israel-Hamas escalation

On Wednesday, 26 May BICOM hosted a webinar with Ehud Yaari, the leading Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel 12 News. Yaari has appeared on Israeli TV since 1975, and is multi award winning expert analyst on regional affairs. Below is a transcript of his remarks.

Who won the latest round?

I think it’s important to give a general picture of what the situation is. Despite celebrating a victory, Hamas seem to me – and I am talking to them a lot – like a wobbling boxer in the ring, seeking support on the ropes and bleeding, not entirely able to punch back – badly shaken. That’s the picture. They have been deprived of most of their assets. Their military doctrine proved to be a complete failure. Of course they were able to launch imprecise rockets, sometimes hundreds of rockets, a day during the fighting. They are now left with 6,000 mostly short-range rockets out of the 14,000 rockets they had at the outset of the fighting. Their military industries – workshops – in which they assembled their rocket arsenal were almost entirely wiped out. Almost 100km of their underground network of tunnels, what we call the ‘Metro’, which served as attack tunnels, command and control positions and shelters, was destroyed by heavy bombs. All other methods of attack, what they have termed as the ‘surprises’ for Israel, such as attack and suicide drones, mini submarines, torpedoes, all failed to work. And the Iron Dome intercepted about 90 per cent of the rockets which were headed toward population areas, whilst over 20 per cent of the 4,500 Gaza rockets fell short of the border.

It was clear that Hamas military leaders were the ones calling the shots. Prior to the escalation, there was takeover of Hamas by its military wing and the political leadership under Yahya Sinwar was completely side-lined. So when they take stock and look around, their conclusions is one – and I’m hearing it from them – that is was a mistake to launch six rockets toward Jerusalem. Very similar to what Hasan Nasrallah said after the 2006 Lebanon War. We are hearing for the first time whispers suggesting maybe that we need to talk to the Israelis directly instead of using the intermediaries like the Egyptians or Qataris, and the example they are given is why cannot the follow in the footsteps of the Taliban, who don’t shake hands with the American negotiators, but they sit down and reach agreements. That’s the new music you hear from there.

Most the Israeli public was opposed to the option of a ground invasion in Gaza – what’s the purpose? You don’t want to stay there and you don’t want to pay the price. So the public accept the IDF, mainly the air force, achieved its objectives and therefore the ceasefire was widely acceptable and within seconds of its agreement, Israel kicked back into normalcy.

What now?

What is on the table now is the idea – it’s not yet a plan – of a very serious economic package for Gaza in order to lift the population out of poverty. I am very sceptical that the idea will turn into an implementable plan, but Hamas has agreed that such a package can be handled by others, such as the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has been very reluctant in the past to step back into Gaza. Israel and the US does not have a solution about how to ensure that dual-use items such as cement, iron and other equipment do not fall into the hands of Hamas for rearmament or rebuilding of the tunnel network. I do not believe the US, nor the EU or any other regional actor is willing to be on the ground to monitor this, and if the PA takes a very courageous decision to supervise the effort, then I believe they will eventually be frightened, bribed and coerced by Hamas and it wouldn’t be effective.

It is important to understand that PA President Mahmoud Abbas stills see himself as a mid-career politician. Why? His father lived to 103 with no serious health problems. Hamas has been inviting Abbas to take over the civilian management of the Gaza Strip for many years, because it aims to copy the Hezbollah model in Lebanon – to be the strongest military player in the arena but to let others deal with the two million population. Abbas is now saying to himself, ‘Do I want to play this game?’ So far, his answer in no. I am in no position to predict at this stage how Abbas will react were such a new Gaza package to be sponsored by the US, the EU, Quartet, whomever? He may then decide to do something different.

We have to keep in mind two points. There is a big debate happening right now in the PA, not between those who have already split, but within the mainstream Fatah party there is a deepening divide between those who say we need to find a formula with Hamas, and those who believe Hamas is the eternal enemy. One of the proposals in play now is the possibility that there will be some sort of agreement between the PA and Hamas on forming a government of technocrats. We’re are not there yet. Likewise, when it comes to Hamas, there is also a deepening divide between people like Yahya Sinwar, who believe that Hamas can no longer escape the reality of their responsibility for the Gazan people, and the military chiefs like Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa, who believe that Hamas is not about serving the people but is about Jihad.

Has the escalation impacted these divides? I believe it has strengthened Sinwar and co., not to give up the sacred objective of destroying Israel, but to make Hamas seriously reconsider their next moves. Another factor in what may be strengthening this inclination is that during the recent escalation both Turkey and Qatar lost their roles. I take you back to the previous conflict in 2014 when former Secretary of State John Kerry was personally responsible for extending the fighting for 51 days because he was working through the Qataris and the Turks, instead of through the Egyptians – who have proven once again to be able to exercise a good degree of influence over Hamas. We have now a fairly good chance of getting into a de facto long-term armistice, or hudna as it is called in Arabic, with an economic package provided someone is able to come up with an ingenious mechanism to supervise the material going into the Gaza Strip.

Did Hamas unite the Palestinian people?

The bottom line is that during escalation the West Bank didn’t erupt. Yes there were pockets of violence, but in general West Bankers demonstrated clearly that they are not interested in another intifada. Moreover, the rioting and violence inside Israel was led mainly by criminal gangs and Hamas understands we are already seeing the Israeli Arab sector back to normalcy. Just before the ceasefire was declared, Hamas sent its people onto the streets in Gaza to beat up or arrest people charged with ‘spreading rumours,’ which is a good indicator for judging the mood on the Palestinian street.

Iran and Hamas

The Iranians could do very little for Hamas in this conflict – they can no longer smuggle arms to Gaza anymore because the Egyptians have stopped the tunnels under the Sinai to the Strip and the sea is now sealed by the Israeli navy. They can provide Hamas will blueprints and Iranian engineers are good at assembling rockets using pipes and what improvised stuff they have.

We have to remember that Hamas is a branch of the Muslim brotherhood – devout Sunnis – but since day one, the Islamic Republic has had close relations with the Brotherhood. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself translated the book of Sayyid Qutb, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, into Farsi. The first delegations to come to Iran and congratulate Khomeini taking over were Muslim Brothers. So there is a certain bond between Hamas and Iran. But Hamas has to watch the extent to which they are allying themselves with the Iranians. Getting blueprints for all military activities is one thing, politically it’s another. For example, it’s only now at the urging of the Iranians that the Hamas leadership is considering whether to repair its relationship with the Assad regime in Syria. (Initially Hamas took the sides of the insurgents and removed all its personnel). Now Hamas thinks it may not be a bad idea to resume operating in Syria, especially when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops are present and they can benefit from more military cooperation. But, at the end of the day, Hamas has to take into account Egypt – is other neighbour – the Gulf states like Qatar and Kuwait, who give them financial support. And when Hamas leaders read mainstream articles in the Saudi press criticising them for this latest conflict, they are unsure how far they can politically align themselves with Iran.

Empowering the PA

US President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken realise that there is no hope in moving to revive a peace process aimed at ending the conflict anytime soon. However, I believe they have yet settled on a definite plan as to what needs to be done now. I know they are consulting with many partners in the region on how to empower the PA, which is very weak and corrupt and doesn’t have the sympathy of most West Bankers, and how to improve the situation on the ground in the West Bank. For example, extending the security responsibility of Palestinian forces to Area B, which is already under Palestinian civilian control. This is important because if President Abbas wants to move forces from Jenin to Nablus he requires IDF approval to move through Area B. Another option would be extending the authority of the PA in Area C, which is 60 per cent of the West Bank. What we don’t need is another Kerry-esque plan which tries to resolve the conflict and comes to a dead end.

The Abraham Accords

The Accords have survived the violence but it’s scared the relationship between Israel and its Gulf allies. Basically, the UAE, Bahrain and others told the Palestinians at the outset that they are not going to allow them to retain a veto over their relationship with Israel – to the benefit of the Palestinians as well. I think this is correct because any Israeli government from now on will have to take into account its gulf and Muslim allies when it formulates policy over the West Bank or Gaza. Furthermore, expanding the circle of normalisation will require more efforts by the Biden administration. There are a few countries who are contemplating joining, but the US has to be there, just like it was in the previous deals. I don’t know how much the Biden administration, which wanted as little to do with the Middle East, is going to invest their time and effort in trying to secure those deals. When it comes to Gulf ties with Gaza, Qatar is not going to be a player like it was before – mainly to do with internal Qatari troubles with the sacking of the finance minister. I believe the UAE and others would be willing to fill the Qatari void, but it all depends on the economic package to Hamas and this elusive mechanism plan.

On the broader regional picture, we have now in operation the East Med organisation, in which Israel, Egypt, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, the Pa and others (the UAE is an observer) are cooperating, and not only on gas but on joint air force drills and there will be much more coming in the future. On the southern end of the Suez Canal there is the Red Sea Council, which was initiated by Saudi Arabia for all relevant states except Israel. I believe that it will be a good idea to explore the possibility that Israel and the PA join the Red Sea Council and here you may have the two preliminary pillars of a regional system that can be linked together whereas the East Med is already tied to the EU (and thereby to NATO) and the Red Sea Council may link itself to whatever system may emerge in the northern Indian Ocean. This is on the minds of many leaders in the regions. We have now, for the first time since the failure of the Baghdad Pact, the prospects of configuring a regional system that can have global implications.

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