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Whether it’s Hamas or Fatah in Gaza, it is Israel which determines the rules

Leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar (5th L) gathers with Palestinians groups to evaluate the reconciliation deal, signed between Hamas and Fatah, in Gaza City, Gaza on 28 September 2017 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]
Leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar (5th L) gathers with Palestinians groups to evaluate the reconciliation deal, signed between Hamas and Fatah, in Gaza City, Gaza on 28 September 2017 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

The Great March of Return protests in the Gaza Strip since 30 March have had two main objectives: the easing or lifting of the 12-year Israeli-led siege of the enclave and fulfilment of the Palestinians’ legitimate right of return. Israel has killed at least 210 Palestinian men, women and children as they exercised their right to peaceful protest; a further 18,000 have been wounded.

In response, the Palestinians in Gaza have resorted to flying incendiary kites over the nominal border. Land seized by Israeli settlers has been burnt as a result. While all of this has been going on, the de facto government in Gaza run by Hamas has been involved in indirect talks with Israel over a truce. The talks are being mediated by Egypt, the UN and Qatar.

Ever since the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “disengaged” from Gaza by evacuating illegal Jewish settlers and demolishing their settlements in 2005, Israel has maintained its effective occupation of the Strip through its siege and frequent military incursions. The latter have included major offensives in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014, killing and wounding thousands of Palestinian civilians in an effort to oust Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement which won the legislative elections in 2006.

Although Israel has the latest hi-tech military hardware to deploy against a largely civilian population in Gaza, its deterrence factor has been diminished by the Great March of Return protests. These have seen ordinary Palestinians assembling on the border with Israel and demonstrating in support of their legitimate rights. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu blames Hamas for the protests and their consequences, but the movement knows its limitations; these are protests driven from and by the grassroots.

Nevertheless, Hamas wants to use the situation to push Israel, along with regional and international actors such as Egypt and the UN, to get the blockade lifted. The movement does not have the capacity to cope with another all-out military offensive by Israel, and the humanitarian situation in Gaza is increasingly unbearable. The use of relatively low intensity attrition tactics such as incendiary kites and peaceful protests is consistent with the aims of Hamas and keeps the movement relevant as a key player. Israel’s use of deadly sniper fire against largely unarmed civilians is a PR disaster for the Zionist state.

Netanyahu is also reluctant to launch another offensive, because he views the political and military presence of Hamas in Gaza as one way to ensure that there is no political unity amongst Palestinians. With Fatah controlling the servile Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank, this is a classic divide and rule tactic. The ongoing rift between Fatah and Hamas — the former rejected the results of the free and fair 2006 elections — buys Israel time to extend its occupation and colonise even more Palestinian land.

Now, however, Netanyahu is outmanoeuvring PA and Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas by getting closer to Hamas and thus putting pressure on the Palestinian President to accept the US “deal of century” even though its details are still unknown. We can be pretty sure, though, that Jerusalem and the right to return won’t be on the table and Abbas looks like the person who is much easier to persuade to accept it unseen.

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What’s more, Hamas is the enemy that Netanyahu knows. When asked to remove the movement from the Gaza Strip, he answered: “What would we do with Gaza if we conquered it? We would still have no one to give it to. If there was someone to whom we could hand it over, then we would have conquered it by now, but no one even wants to consider that. I know that if we do go to war in Gaza, everyone will applaud me for the first two hours. The question is, what happens after that?”

From that, we can assume that for Netanyahu it is not the limited and tolerable military threat posed by Hamas that matters most, but possible Palestinian unity that can lead to a political threat to Israeli hegemony. His best option, therefore, is to keep the border quiet and restore the Israel Defence Forces’ deterrence factor by dealing with Hamas through negotiations.

Both Fatah and Hamas, meanwhile, want to protect their status on the respective territories that they govern. According to the Egyptian proposal for possible reconciliation between the two factions, new national elections are a must. However, Fatah is losing popularity among the electorate and it is concerned about losing control of the Palestinian Authority again, as it did in 2006.

Local reports suggest that the political and military wings of Hamas hold differing opinions about continuing the border protests. The political wing is close to accepting the Egypt-brokered ceasefire agreement with Israel, while the military wing is in favour of continuing the protests. Some factions within the military wing believe that easing restrictions without lifting the siege altogether will not make any difference to the humanitarian crisis.

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Such differences suggest that the main short-term objective of the Hamas political wing is to maintain its relevance in the Gaza Strip and be in a better position to provide basic essential services to the people. In effect, it looks to remain in power as the de facto government.

This is the Middle East, so it is hard to be certain when deals are agreed. For now, it looks as if agreement on a short-term ceasefire along the Gaza-Israel border and an easing of the blockade is close. Whether or not Hamas succeeds in getting the Israeli-led siege eased, and thus maintains its position in the coastal enclave; or whether Fatah wins or loses support on the ground, we can be sure of one thing: it is Israel which will be the real winner, because it is still able to determine the rules of the game.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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