What more than a decade of a blockade and military pressure couldn’t achieve has been accomplished in less than a month by the coronavirus. More threatened than ever, this time by an invisible enemy, Hamas is showing signs of distress and taking pains to keep the Gaza-Israel border completely quiet, as well as expressing unprecedented willingness to conclude a far-reaching truce with Israel.
To date, only 12 confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported in the Gaza Strip, and the rate of infection is supposedly under control. But as with a number of neighboring Arab countries, it’s hard to trust the numbers coming out of Gaza, and even harder to have faith in its healthcare system. While Israel is carrying out coronavirus testing there, Hamas is still responsible for the health of the population, and has taken a number of steps to that end, such as setting up isolation facilities and limiting movement in the streets.
Israel is very worried about the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in Gaza, since Israel sees itself, and is seen by the world, as being responsible for what happens there—a harsh reminder to anyone who thought or wanted to believe that Israel actually “disengaged” from Gaza back in 2005. But the specter of an outbreak is of even greater concern to Hamas, whose leaders are greatly concerned regarding how the pandemic could affect their status.
In the shadow of the pandemic, the world—including the Arabs and even traditional Hamas allies like Qatar and Turkey—has lost all interest in the Gaza Strip, and even if those allies wanted to, their ability to provide assistance has been curtailed.
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic is only making things in Gaza worse, the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back. The protests over rising unemployment, the cost of living, food shortages and more are all directed against the ruling entity—Hamas. What the Arabs of Israel and the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria have already discovered, the residents of Gaza are now finding out: without Israel, they have no one.
As a result, tones have been moderated, and a white flag is being tentatively waved. Only a few weeks ago, before the crisis developed, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar threatened—with characteristic and infuriating arrogance—that he would “cut off the air” to 6 million Israelis, thereby forcing Israel to supply Hamas with ventilators and medical aid. Now, Hamas is singing a different tune, with head of its politburo, Ismail Haniyeh, talking about coronavirus as a mutual strategic threat facing everyone and a historic watershed moment that will allow for a deal with Israel.
The most important issue for Israel is, of course, the return of the bodies of fallen Israeli soldiers and the release of the Israeli captives being held by Hamas. So Hamas is using concern for the well-being of Palestinian prisoners in Israel as a way of worming itself out of the corner into which it has backed itself and working out a solution. But it’s clear to everyone that once the issue of Israel’s fallen and captives is resolved, resolutions to many other issues can be reached. In the meantime, the Gaza border protests have stopped, as has the intermittent rocket fire on southern Israel.
The dilemma Israel is facing is obvious. On one hand, there is an opportunity to solve a sensitive humanitarian issue that is a top public priority, and to eventually hammer out a deal that will ensure long-term quiet on the southern border.
On the other hand, Israel is being increasingly dragged into what is happening in Gaza. First, there is the coronavirus crisis, but other issues will follow that could put Israel back in Gaza and make it responsible for the residents there. This would force Israel to maneuver between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and a second “Palestinian authority” in the Gaza Strip.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.