Gaza: De-escalation in exchange for health security
In front of the International Red Cross headquarters in Gaza, several demonstrators brought together by the "ministry of prisoners" initiative - a body administered by Hamas - are demanding the release of the Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, given the high risk of contamination in prisons.
Indeed, in the context of this global health crisis, the negotiations over the issue of prisoners have not been suspended. On the contrary, appears that the pandemic has actually had a catalytic effect on these discussions, which if they are successful, would open the way to a "de-escalation" arrangement (tahdi'a) between the Islamist movement and Israel.
And for good reason, since what's at stake is a period of calm - vital to an Israeli government destabilised since the last elections and busy trying to curb the Covid-19 crisis - in exchange for medical assistance in the Gaza Strip. With the discovery in the Strip of four Covid-19 infections on 24 August, and while Israel has been carrying out a series of offensives for more than a week and preventing the entry of fuel leading to massive electricity shortages, the Gazan authorities are sounding the alarm.
The threat of a health crisis in Gaza
The spread of the virus in the Palestinian enclave, relatively spared up until now, is a serious threat because of the density of its population; one of the world's highest, and because of the humanitarian conditions, which continue to deteriorate due to the Israeli blockade.
On several occasions, Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh, two Hamas leaders, have made public statements concerning the handling of the crisis. Haniyeh, chief of the party's political bureau, declared in mid-April in an interview in Doha that a certain number of measures had been enacted in the Gaza Strip.
|Palestinians now find themselves totally dependent on external aid to cope with the pandemic|
A quarantine centre was set up at the Rafah checkpoint for Palestinians returning from Egypt. Since mid-March, the border post has only been open three times to allow Palestinians stranded in Egypt to return home. And most of the cases recorded in the Gaza Strip concern travellers from Egypt, but all had so far been detected within the quarantine centre.
At the beginning of April, there were a dozen infections, and by the beginning of August that number had risen to 80.
Haniyeh also specified that the Gaza authorities have been collaborating with the Health Ministry in Ramallah to deal with the crisis. However, with their defective health system, a consequence of the Israeli occupation and the suspension of US financial assistance, the Palestinians now find themselves totally dependent on external aid to cope with the pandemic.
Cairo is worried about the health crisis in the neighbouring enclave, and at the end of March sent a convoy with food and medicine in coordination with Israeli authorities. This action occurred within a context of tension, and on its heels rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip. Hamas' intention was to put pressure on Israel so it would send medical kits to the strip.
Besides its humanitarian support, Egypt, and especially its intelligence services, takes an active part in the peacekeeping negotiations, making considerable diplomatic efforts to maintain calm between the two adversaries. This activity took on particular significance following Sinwar's declaration on 2 April.
In response to questions from members of his audience, he threatened Israel with reprisals if the situation in the Gaza Strip were to get worse due to Israeli non-assistance. And on this issue, Israel's position is perfectly clear: there can be no assistance without something in return.
Negotiations: 'Business as usual'
While the current de-escalation talks include a health dimension, this remains, of course, a short-term affair. Indeed, these discussions have dealt for over a decade with lifting the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip in exchange for a "truce" of at least five years.
The terms of this agreement, negotiated indirectly with Egypt in the role of principal broker, are still relatively imprecise. But it is to be implemented in several stages. It involves the building of infrastructure in Gaza, power lines and industrial estates at border points with Israel or the extension of the Palestinian fishing waters.
Lately the negotiations have focused on the issue of prisoner swaps, a process which seems to be moving faster due to the Covid-19 crisis. Hamas has been demanding the release of the elderly, of the women and the children still held in Israeli jails, as well as of prisoners freed under the terms of the Ghiad Shalit agreement of 2011, and jailed again, especially during the Protective Edge Operation in 2014.
In exchange, the Israeli government demands the return of the bodies of two dead soldiers and the release of two of its nationals who had infiltrated the Gaza Strip.
Hamas leaders are trying to assume an inflexible stance on this matter, as demonstrated by Sinwar's tough talk at the beginning of April.
Nonetheless, the characteristic asymmetry of relations between Israel and the Islamist party obliges the latter to confine its bellicose impulses to its rhetoric and exercise once again a capacity for pragmatism. As a result, there are constant exchanges between Hamas and Israel via their respective intelligence services. However, while these negotiations seem to have taken a tangible turn over the last few months, it must be recognised that the overall situation remains extremely volatile.
|Israel's position is perfectly clear: there can be no assistance without something in return|
Indeed, the slow pace of the process offers a sharp contrast with the humanitarian urgency and the plight of the Gazans, expressed in frequent street demonstrations like the "Great Return March", which began in March 2018, and movements which are not entirely controlled by Hamas and are met with military repression from Israel.
Recently, the incendiary balloons sent once again towards the Israeli border prompted Israel to block payment of the Qatari contribution to the Palestinian enclave, as well as an umpteenth escalation of tensions. A delegation of Egyptian security specialists then went to Gaza and came up, in extremis as always, with a short-term compromise between the two parties and attempted to expedite a rapid conclusion of the current negotiations.
The security and political stakes
These de-escalation talks offer a certain degree of continuity, as regards both the process itself and the individuals involved. For example, there have always been Egyptian brokers participating, as well as Germans and Swiss.
However, the Egyptian intelligence services differ from the other mediators because of this constancy in their participation but above all because of their own interests. Considering the territorial contiguity between Egypt, the Gaza Strip and Israel, maintaining calm between the two latter entities, at least temporarily, is an issue of national security for Cairo, whose role is rather that of a "mediator partner".
The case of the Sinai is emblematic of this mutual dependence between the different players. Since the beginning of his term of office in 2013, Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been working towards the reconquest of the Egyptian peninsula. He is waging a "War on Terror" in collaboration with Hamas.
After a period of intense repression of the Islamist party by the Egyptian military regime, especially through the almost total shutdown of the Rafah crossing between 2013 and 2017, a modus vivendi between the two parties was finally reached.
Hamas has shown its willingness to collaborate with the Egyptian authorities through a scrupulous monitoring of the entries and exits to and from the Gaza Strip in exchange for a liberalisation of the mobility requirements for Palestinians.
Yet from the Egyptian point of view, this close collaboration is not meant to last. Cairo sees it as a stopgap partnership because it is hoping to see the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza. In the long run, it will not tolerate the domination of a neighbouring territory by a party which is systematically associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nonetheless, Hamas has an advantage over President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been sidelined during these negotiations and who doesn't always share the outlook of his Egyptian counterpart. For example, the involvement of his political opponent, Mohamed Dahlan as a go-between in the rapprochement between Cairo and Hamas has caused considerable annoyance in Ramallah.
As a result, the de-escalation talks seem to have further discredited the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, although these relatively informal discussions do not imply reciprocal recognition between Israel and Hamas, they have enabled the latter to bolster its political and international status and have further deepened the gulf between the Palestinian factions.
Besides this, the Egyptian negotiators, who are also in charge of the dossier on inter-Palestinian reconciliation, have to a certain extent forsaken the latter since the failure to apply the most recent agreement between Hamas and Fatah, signed in Cairo in October 2017. Fatah have nonetheless been trying to present a united front, ever since the announcement last January of the US administration's "Deal of the Century," and more recently, in reaction to the Netanyahu government's plan to annex Palestinian territories.
|A successful outcome to these renewed efforts at national unity is unlikely|
Following the joint press conference held at the beginning of July by Jibril Al-Rajoub and Sale Al-Arouri, senior officials of Fatah and Hamas, the idea has been to organise in the near future a public meeting in Gaza, dubbed a "festival," and involving all the various political parties.
This initiative was written back into the Palestinian calendar after the normalisation of relations between the Arab Emirates and Israel. The Egyptian security delegation, during its latest visit to Ramallah and then to Gaza, on 16 and 17 August, informed the Palestinians of the Emirati and Israeli positions and urged the different factions to meet.
However, a successful outcome to these renewed efforts at national unity is unlikely. Indeed, Hamas' relatively fruitful dialogue over the exchange of prisoners, meant to be a first step towards "de-escalation", ratifies a logic of negotiations with Israel parallel to and in competition with the laborious peace process led by the Palestinian Authority.
Sarah Daoud is a PhD student at the Centre for International Studies (CERI-Sciences-Po) and affiliated with the Centre for Economic, Judicial, and Social Study and Documentation (CEDEJ)in Cairo.
This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.
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