Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip have recently conveyed messages to Israel indicating their willingness to negotiate a long term cease-fire in the enclave. These messages were passed through different channels on several occasions over the last few months. Hamas wants to tie the cease-fire with an easing of the siege on Gaza, permission to embark on large-scale infrastructure projects and a prisoner and body exchange deal.
As far as is known, Israel has not responded clearly to the messages.
Reports presented to senior defense establishment officials and the political echelons say that tensions in Gaza will remain high even after the massive Nakba Day demonstration Hamas has planned for May 15, when Palestinians mark the expulsion of Arabs from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence. According to intelligence assessments, Hamas is still in dire and unprecedented strategic distress and is currently more open to discussing options it rejected in the past.
The Hamas leadership is engaged in a lively debate regarding the negotiation of a cease-fire and the exchange of prisoners and bodies. The daily Israel Hayom reported two weeks ago that Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, is in favor, while the overall Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh is opposed. The paper claimed that Sinwar accused Haniyeh of yielding to Iranian pressure in forming his positions.
At the same time, reconciliation efforts between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are still on hold after the assassination attempt on the PA’s Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah during his visit to Gaza in March. The PA blamed Hamas for detonating explosives close to Hamdallah’s convoy while Hamas blamed internal rivalry within the PA and attributed the attempt to the head of the General Intelligence Service in Ramallah, Majid Faraj, who was also in the convoy.
Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has ordered the transfer of salaries to employees in the Gaza Strip after a prolonged delay.
The Israeli army continues to describe the condition of infrastructure in Gaza as dire. However, it has refrained from calling the situation a humanitarian disaster due to criticism voiced by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who avoids the term and claims that it doesn’t accurately depict the reality there. In recent months the defense establishment approved several measures designed to ease conditions, such as expanding the fishing zone in the Mediterranean Sea, granting businesspeople more entry permits into Israel and hooking up an American desalination plant to the power grid. However, these measures are described as having only a marginal positive effect.
Two main landmines remain in Gaza: the abysmal condition of the infrastructure and the residents’ limited purchasing power. As long as these issues are not addressed head on, the chances of improving the situation remain slim. An uptick has been recorded in recent months in the number of residents from refugee camps and poor neighborhoods who turn to organizations and charities to provide them their most basic needs.
The Israel Defense Forces is getting ready for continued confrontation around the border fence this coming Friday and even more so next Tuesday on Nakba Day. Last Friday 7,000 demonstrators came to the weekly protest, and several dozen were hurt by live fire from IDF snipers. For the first time since demonstrations began on March 30, no protester was killed by Israeli fire. Hamas hopes to bring between 100,000 and 200,000 demonstrators to the protest on May 15, which includes a plan to have hundreds or thousands of people breach the fence and enter Israel. The army believes that Hamas will consider the deaths of dozens of unarmed Palestinians who breach the fence an achievement that could be translated into heavy international pressure on Israel.
Visitors who were shown the army’s operational plans for dealing with this issue were impressed by the planned presence of a large number of senior commanders in the field, with a battalion commander in charge of every sector of confrontation. The IDF is now showing more restraint in handling these demonstrations and trying hard not to hurt civilians who are not involved in violent acts. The army has found that Hamas holds complete operational control over these demonstrations, under the cover of which its activists reach the fence and try to breach it.
The military estimates that 70 percent of the fatalities since the start of the protests were connected to Hamas or the military wings of other organizations in the Gaza Strip. Hamas activists who approached and tried to breach the fence during the demonstrations were wearing gas masks in order to move freely through the tear gas clouds spread by the IDF and the smoke of tires set alight by protesters.
Toward the weekend the IDF will reinforce its deployment along the fence, with the largest number of troops being deployed next week. Despite repeated army requests, the police are not assisting in the preparations. Even though the police and the Border Police have abundant experience in contending with violent demonstrations and are better equipped to deal with a massive fence breach, they make do with sending snipers to the fence and restrict themselves to taking charge of events only east of Route 232, which skirts the Gaza Strip. Under these circumstances the army will have to deal with any infiltration attempts on communities near the fence on its own.
In the meantime it has emerged that the Palestinian Authority is also planning a big rally to mark 70 years since the Nakba; it is slated to take place on May 14 and May 15 in Ramallah. The protests will happen close to the date of the ceremony marking the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, which will host a delegation of dozens of senators and House members from the U.S. Against this backdrop, the Israeli military and the police will be required to deploy larger numbers of troops to the area of Jerusalem and Ramallah.
On Sunday two Palestinians were killed by IDF fire while attempting to cross the fence in the southern part of the Strip. The army says they were trying to damage the fence’s infrastructure. On Saturday, six members of Hamas’ military wing were killed in an explosion after handling what Hamas called “an espionage device planted by Israel.” Hamas blamed Israel for the explosion but gave no further details. Like in other instances when Palestinians were killed in Gaza over the last month, no rockets were fired at Israel in response. This attests to Hamas’ tight control over events and a prohibition on other groups from using rockets in order to maintain the semblance of a popular protest which is viewed more favorably by the international community, with blame for any death attributed to Israel.