Voices in Israel have been calling recently for an effort to reach a long-term truce with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but while Israel may be willing to take steps to reach that objective, it remains an open question whether Hamas is willing and able to do the same.
It is imperative to first realize that Israel and Hamas likely have very different definitions of the term “long-term truce.”
In Israel and the Western world, this could translate into many years of absolute quiet, accompanied by economic development in Gaza, trade and a major step towards peace.
But in Hamas’s world, such an arrangement would be interpreted as an agreement that serves its immediate, medium and long-term interests, and the arrangement is unlikely to lead to a broader end to hostilities, so long as Hamas only controls Gaza and not the West Bank—unless, that is, the organization changes its goals.
According to Hamas’s perspective, a truce arrangement with Israel on the Gazan front does not mean an end to terror attacks by Hamas cells based in the West Bank, Lebanon or even overseas.
Moreover, while in Israel there are calls for Hamas to demilitarize Gaza as part of such a truce, this would ironically undermine the chances of any arrangement holding up as Hamas needs its terror military assets to reign in other armed factions in Gaza, particularly Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Salafi-jihadi groups, who could try to challenge the détente.
For Israel, a long-term arrangement would enable the defense establishment to focus its resources and attention on its main threat: the Iranian axis. For Hamas, a deal would involve securing its role as a Palestinian governing entity with tangible achievements to present to the Palestinian people.
To understand Hamas’s dilemma in weighing up a long-term arrangement, it is worth noting that such an agreement could see Iran cut off funding to the organization to show its displeasure. Iran expects its proxies and sponsored organizations to confront Israel and be responsive to its desires. Entering a long-term arrangement with Israel would violate that understanding. This could also create new tensions between Hamas and Iran’s more intimate Gaza proxy, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
On the other hand, Hamas is extremely keen to solve the pressing issues it is currently facing— a failing economy, stretched medical system, disintegrating basic services and infrastructure, and lack of any tangible achievements as a sovereign entity that it can display domestically. The coronavirus pandemic is another urgent problem troubling the Hamas regime.
Still, Hamas would face serious challenges if it presented a future arrangement with Israel as being motivated only by the desire to merely secure stable electricity and water, alleviate unemployment and gain additional economic benefits.
It needs to show more significant gains to Gazans and to the other factions, and this means securing a seaport and the opening up of Gaza’s borders to freer movement. In addition, it would need to secure the release of Palestinian security prisoners, but as a separate deal.
The ability to market any arrangement as a major Hamas achievement will therefore be crucial if Hamas leaders in Gaza and outside are to agree to it.
Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar is worried by the fact that after 13 years of Hamas rule, the organization has little to nothing to present Gazans with, other than wars, poverty and a disconnect from the West Bank. This is not what Hamas wants to enshrine as its primary legacy.
Hamas’s distress found expression in a recent joint military drill it held with other Gazan factions. The message behind the drill to Israel is that Hamas has power and is not to be trivialized. It also served as a creative way of urging Israel to enter into mediated negotiations.
The dramatic regional changes that led to normalization agreements between Israel and Sunni Arab states could create new momentum in the push to reach an arrangement. Qatar, a key financial sponsor of Hamas, is moving towards the Saudi-led Sunni axis, and this axis has every interest in pulling Hamas out of Iran’s orbit.
One major obstacle to reaching such an arrangement is the unresolved issue of Hamas’s holding of two Israeli hostages and the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed in “Operation Protective Edge,” the 2014 Gaza war.
Hamas is holding the hostages and bodies as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian prisoners—a major strategic gain if Hamas can secure it. Israel has no current intentions of releasing large numbers of prisoners and is unwilling to proceed with broader arrangements until the release is secured. For Hamas, the prisoners and a long-term arrangement are two separate issues.
Perhaps an even bigger question though is how far Hamas is willing to budge on larger issues.
Not only can Hamas not afford to demilitarize itself, it would also need a declarative acknowledgment from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the region that it is the legitimate ruling entity in Gaza. Only such a declarative achievement would enable Hamas to descend some steps from its ideological militant tree, while still being able to enforce its authority over other Gazan armed factions.
This would mean that Gaza would remain militarized in any realistic arrangement and that a great deal of money would need to be poured into the Strip to “solve the problem” of militant Islamist ideology.
Adding further complications to the mix is the danger that Hamas wins elections in the West Bank, an outcome that would not serve Israel’s interests as long as Hamas remains a terrorist organization.
It is important to keep in mind that Hamas is a strategic organization with long-term calculations. This means that any potential arrangement would have to go a long way to meeting the organization’s immediate and future needs.
This fact creates a far trickier challenge than first meets the eye. Only a delicate recipe, prepared by the right chef, could make such an arrangement potentially “palatable” for all of the involved parties, near and far.
Col. Grisha Yakubovich is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. He concluded his military service in 2016 as the head of the civil department for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).