In agreeing to yet another cease-fire with Hamas on Tuesday, Israel may get the peace and quiet its citizens have longed for during 50 days of fighting, but the long-term outlook — and the future of the Palestinian Authority — is still very much in doubt.
“I hear Hamas is celebrating,” said Ephraim Sneh, a retired Israeli general and former deputy defense minister. “It’s hollow; it’s not a victory. This so-called achievement could have been achieved without 2,000 dead and a Gaza Strip that is devastated. It has been defeated.”
He said the only thing the conflict proved was that “Gaza can’t be ruled by a government that rejects the State of Israel. The very profound fact is that Gaza and Israel are inseparable from all aspects — the environment, water, commerce — that is the geography; just look at the map.”
Unlike 11 other proposed cease-fires that Israel said Hamas either refused to accept or violated, the current cease-fire is supposed to be open-ended. But many Israelis living in southern Israel told Israeli media that they are skeptical of the agreement, which came just hours after a barrage of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza killed one Israeli in a southern kibbutz and injured several others.
These residents noted that the Israeli government had told them after the last cease-fire that they could return to their homes, but that fighting resumed and a 4-year-old boy was killed by mortar fire last Friday.
And Mordechai Kedar, a professor of Arabic studies at Bar-Ilan University, questioned whether other terrorist groups would honor the truce.
“There are too many groups in Gaza that might not abide by the cease-fire agreement,” he said. “To embarrass Hamas and draw Israel into action again against Hamas, they might continue shooting in spite of the agreement.”
The agreement calls for Israel and Hamas to resume indirect negotiations within a month to discuss the major points that divide them. Among the issues Hamas is expected to raise is its desire for a seaport and an airport, something Kedar said Israel would only agree to if there was “real supervision” to prevent the importation of weapons and equipment that could be used to dig tunnels and build more rockets.
“So the question is not whether the seaport and airport will be built, but who will control them — and this is where Israel and Hamas night clash again,” he said. “Hamas will object to supervision because it wants to smuggle in missiles that the Iron Dome [anti-missile system] cannot deal with.”
The latest truce calls for the reopening of the Rafa border crossing linking the Gaza Strip with Egypt, but only under the supervision of the Palestinian Authority to ensure that no military weapons or equipment enters.
Eran Lerman, deputy national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said providing the PA with such responsibility would be a test so that Israel could determine how much it could be trusted.
“We want a role for the PA and want Hamas undermined, and for the international community to play a role in this process,” he told a conference call organized by American Friends of Likud. “We are sober about the likelihood of this happening overnight. It has to be performance-based and we’ll see it before [the PA] has a larger and larger role. So the Rafa crossing is going to be the first testing ground for the PA’s authority.”
But Kedar questioned whether the PA has the clout to handle such an assignment.
“Nobody in Israel trusts the PA to do a good job because it is afraid of Hamas, and Hamas can blackmail and intimidate and threaten it not to cooperate rather than supervise what is being done under their nose,” he said.
Sneh said he too is dubious about the ability of the PA and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to monitor goods and supplies going into the Gaza Strip.
“I’m afraid that if the military force of Hamas is not destroyed, it would be very difficult for Abbas’ troops to really control the checkpoints,” he said.
But Sneh also insisted that Netanyahu does not want to empower the PA and Abbas.
“He would prefer that Hamas rule in Gaza,” he said. “That is why the Israeli government did not destroy Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2012 and why it wanted to weaken Abu Mazen. …”
Sneh said he would like to see the international community play a role in ensuring that Hamas does not rearm – provided that both Turkey and Qatar are not a party to such efforts.
“They are the paymasters of Hamas and should not enter — every penny raised should go through Ramallah,” he said.
Asked about the reconciliation between Hamas and the PA, Sneh called it “fictitious.”
Lerman cited the Hamas-orchestrated plot foiled recently by the Israeli security service Shin Bet that was designed to oust Abbas and the PA from the West Bank. A senior Hamas official, Salah Al-Aruri, who is based in Turkey and who recently claimed responsibility for plotting the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June, reportedly planned the plot. Two of the men who carried out the abduction and murder are said to be living in Turkey; a third man was arrested by Israel and admitted that the attack was planned and financed by Hamas.
The National Council of Young Israel called this week for the U.S. Justice Department to indict and arrest Al-Aruri for the murder of those teenagers, 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel, who held dual United States-Israeli citizenship, as well as Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gilad Shaar, 16.
“The United States must do everything in its power to bring the individuals responsible for the brutal murder of an American citizen to justice and ensure that they answer for the heinous crime that they have committed,” said NCYI President Farley Weiss.
Israel’s decision to settle for an end of hostilities rather than a destruction of Hamas was a deliberate one, according to Lerman.
He said that during the conflict Israel was able to “inflict immense damage on them and their response was limited. Their rocket effort failed miserably largely because of the Iron Dome, whose results were spectacular.”
The real damage from Hamas came from the crude mortar shells that Hamas fired into the communities immediately surrounding the Gaza Strip.
“They are more difficult to detect when they are fired within a five-mile range,” he said. “They took the life of a boy of four and they have taken a toll on civilians and many soldiers.”
It was reported Monday that 70 percent of Israelis living near the Gaza Strip have evacuated their homes.
“Hamas failed in everything they threw at us but they managed to persist because we decided we were not going in to obliterate them until they cried uncle, as the expression used to go,” Lerman said one day before the truce began. “The leadership in Gaza and elsewhere was showing signs of understanding that the game is up and that the suffering of their people would be translated into a growing anger against them.”
Israeli media noted that although there were initial celebrations in Gaza City after the truce took effect, there was a noticeable lack of celebration elsewhere in Gaza, in Jordan or elsewhere in the Arab world.
Regarding Qatar and Turkey, Lerman said it is “time to put pressure on Turkey and even more so on Qatar” to get them to stop supporting Hamas.
“We believe the [Qatar] establishment is penetrated deeply by Muslim Brotherhood elements,” Lerman observed. “The ideological penetration by the Muslim Brotherhood goes a long way in understanding why Qatar is doing this.”