“The occupation […], the corona […] are killing our prisoners”. In front of the headquarters of the International Red Cross in Gaza, several demonstrators, gathered at the initiative of the “ministry of prisoners”, a body administered by Hamas, are demanding the liberation of the Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, considering the high risk of contamination in the prisons.
Indeed, in the context of this world health crisis, the negotiations over the prisoner’s issue have never been suspended. On the contrary, it would even appear that the pandemic has had a catalytic effect on these discussions, which if they are successful, would open the way to a “pacification” arrangement (tahdi’a) between the Islamist movement and Israel. And for good reason, since what is at stake is to trade a period of calm, vital for an Israeli government destabilised since the last elections and busy trying to curb the Covid-19 crisis, against medical assistance in the Gaza Strip. With the discovery in the latter of four cases of infection on 24 August, 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 sanitary crisis in Gaza
A propagation of the virus in the Palestinian enclave, relatively spared up till now, is greatly feared 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, who has been on an international tour since January, declared in mid-April in an interview in Doha that a certain number of measures had been enacted in the Gaza Strip.
A quarantine centre was set up at the Rafah checkpoint for Palestinians returning from Egypt. Since mid-March, the border post has only been opened 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 infected persons, and by the beginning of August their 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 sanitary crisis in the neighbouring enclave, and at the end of March sent a convoy with food and medicaments, in coordination with Israeli authorities. This event already took place in 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 score, Israel’s position is perfectly clear: there can be no assistance without something in return.
Negotiations: “business as usual”
While the current pacification talks include a sanitary 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 infrastructures in Gaza, power lines and industrial estates at border points with Israel or the extension of the Palestinian fishing ground.
Lately the negotiations have focused on the issue of prisoner swaps, a process which seems to be moving faster due to the Covid-19 emergency. Indeed, because of the sanitary situation, Hamas has been demanding the release of the elderly, of the women and the children still held in Israeli gaols, as well as that of prisoners freed under the terms of the Ghiad Shalit agreement of 20111 and gaoled 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 stand on this matter, as witness 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. Thus, 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 recognized that the overall situation remains terribly volatile.
Indeed, the slow pace of the process offers a sharp contrast with the humanitarian urgency and the plight of the Gazaouis, expressed in frequent street demonstrations like the “great return march”, launched in March 2018, movements which are not entirely controlled by Hamas and are met with military repression from Israel. Recently, the resumption of the sending of flaming balloons 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 pacification 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 also and above all because of their motivation. Considering the territorial contiguity between Egypt, the Gaza Strip and Israel, maintaining calm between the two latter entities, at least momentarily, 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-Sissi has been working towards the reconquest of the Egyptian peninsula. He is waging a “war on terrorism” with the collaboration of Hamas. After a period of intense repression of the Islamist party by the Egyptian military regime, especially through the all but systematic closing of the Rafah crossing point 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 does 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.2
Thus, the pacification 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 deepened further still the gulf between the Palestinian factions. Besides which, 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. The latter have nonetheless been trying to present a united front, ever since the disclosure 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.
Following the joint press conference held at the beginning of July by Jibril Al-Rajoub and Sale Al-Arouri, respectively high officials of El 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 together.
However, a successful outcome of 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 “pacification”, ratifies a logic of negotiations with Israel parallel to and in competition with the laborious peace process led by the Palestinian Authority.
1EDITOR’S NOTE: This Israeli soldier captured on 25 June 2006 was freed by Hamas on 18 October 2011 in exchange for the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
2In June 2017, talks took place in Cairo between Dahlan’s Democratic Reform Trend and Hamas; the talks dealt with the conditions for an improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza.