The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Col. Eran Lerman: New Israeli government has a different strategy for dealing with Hamas, and as things stand it will not allow suitcases of Qatari cash to enter Gaza.


By Mohammad Al-Kassim, The Media Line, 27.07.2021

Israel announced on Tuesday evening that it would allow no more funds into the Gaza Strip for reconstruction efforts and would make no further deals until Hamas returns Israeli civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed and the remains of two soldiers – Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin – who have been held captive in the Strip.

Israel’s continuing delay in allowing Qatari cash aid to enter the Strip, refusal to ease its blockade, and closure of entry checkpoints will lead to an increase in tension, a Hamas official in Gaza said earlier on Tuesday.

“Hamas will use all resources at its disposal to force Israel to give in to its demands,” the official, who asked that his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak on the matter publicly, told The Media Line.

“They must allow the grants and the fuel in. Our patience is running out!” the official said.

Hamas, the Palestinian group that governs the impoverished Gaza Strip, does not communicate directly with Israel; talks between the parties are conducted through Egypt, which brokered the latest cease-fire.

Egypt is making unremitting efforts to forge an agreement between the two sides, but the indirect talks have so far failed to produce a breakthrough.

On Tuesday, Israeli media reported that Hamas has offered Israel, through the Egyptian mediator, a two-stage prisoner exchange deal. According to the same outlets, Israel has not yet responded to the proposal.

The lack of progress in the indirect talks and the restrictions Israel puts on the entrance of goods, fuel and humanitarian aid into the impoverished Strip risks another episode of deadly violence.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz has only allowed “basic humanitarian aid” to enter Gaza; Israel is refusing to allow major reconstruction material in unless Hamas returns two Israeli civilians and the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas in the Strip.

“The Hamas terror group in Gaza needs to understand: We are determined. If Hamas wants reconstruction and economic development, the time has come that it takes concrete steps to maintain the ‘calm,’ halt the rearmament and return the boys home,” Gantz said last month.

Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, says a deal can “easily” be reached if Hamas lowers its expectations.

Progress will not be made “unless a reasonable deal is reached that ensures the release of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers from 2014 and the two civilians who crossed into Gaza and are being held against their will as hostages, and [Hamas] lets go of some of the unrealistic expectations on the number of prisoners that [the group’s leader in Gaza Yahya] Sinwar has demanded [that Israel release in return].”

As for the possibility of new clashes, Hamas “holds the keys,” Lerman told The Media Line, adding that Israel has no interest in chaos in Gaza. “As things stand, they [large scale-hostilities] are not on the menu.”

May’s 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas as well as other Palestinian armed groups based in the coastal enclave, killed 260 Palestinians including some fighters, according to authorities in Gaza. Projectiles fired from the Strip killed 13 people in Israel, including a soldier, the police and army said.

The fighting caused millions of dollars in property damage.

Lerman says the new Israeli government that assumed office on June 13 has a different strategy for dealing with Hamas, and as things stand it will not allow suitcases of Qatari cash to enter Gaza.

Israel has not allowed the delivery of the funds for the last three months.

“The new Israeli government decided to demand a new policy, and that policy is for the PA [Palestinian Authority] to have a greater say in order to weaken Hamas’ grip on the [Strip] and that any aid has to go through Ramallah.”

With Israel’s approval, Qatar since 2018 has delivered millions of dollars in cash to Gaza’s Hamas rulers, to pay for fuel for the Strip’s sole power plant and provide aid to tens of thousands of poverty-stricken families.

Dr. Mukhaimer Abu Saada, head of the Department of Political Science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, told The Media Line the cease-fire is “still fragile and the situation is very tense. It does not appear that there are any signs of a breakthrough.

“The situation in Gaza is very bad after the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip. There is a catastrophic humanitarian situation, a tragic situation due to the closure of the crossings and the lack of continuous entry of materials. Only foodstuffs, medicine and fuel enter,” the professor says.

The change of the guard in Israel has complicated the talks, Abu Saada adds, saying the previous government led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu eased restrictions to maintain relative calm. But with the advent of the new government, the terms of understanding have changed, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Gantz want to be seen as tougher on Hamas.

“Gantz stated immediately after the war that the situation that existed before the war will not exist after the war. The facilities that Gaza obtained before the war will not be obtained after the war. As if there is a punishment being imposed on Hamas, which is also a collective punishment for the Palestinians.”

Abu Saada says Israeli is intentionally stalling the talks.

“It seems that Israel is trying to obtain concessions from Hamas in exchange for facilitating the entry of Qatari funds and building materials.”

Israel, Lerman says, believes the Qatari money was “deliberately” designed “to give Hamas an advantage over the PA.” He adds that Israel drew some benefit from allowing the Qatari funds to cross into Gaza in suitcases, “of course, otherwise it wouldn’t have happened, and the benefit was that Hamas was made to look to the world not so much as a jihadi resistance movement but as a party exacting protection money,” thus damaging the movement’s image.

The current situation is fragile and unstable. The siege, the closure of the crossings and the agonizing suffering of more than 2 million Palestinians cannot continue indefinitely.

But failure of the negotiations between Hamas and Israel risks a resumption of military confrontation.

Lerman believes the prospect for armed confrontation is slim, as it would be an “unpopular war.”

“I don’t [think war is likely] for the simple reason that an old concept called ‘deterrence’ has to some extent been reasserted. Bravado notwithstanding, Hamas learned a number of bitter lessons during the last war: Israeli society was not seriously disrupted and the level of losses in Israel was limited because of the Iron Dome [air defense system] and other measures. But the damage to Hamas’ infrastructure was extensive.”

Abu Saada also does not think war is imminent.

Hamas is not interested in entering into an armed confrontation with Israel “because the recent confrontation cost the Palestinians a lot in terms of infrastructure destruction. Especially with the presence of a new Israeli government that is trying to flex its muscles and avenge what happened two months ago during the war,” he explains.

However, Abu Saada continues, “it is expected that some form of friction and pressure will be exerted on Israel, such as the launching of incendiary balloons and the resumption of mass rallies on the eastern border.”

This week, at least three fires were reported in southern Israel sparked by incendiary balloons from the Palestinian territory. In punishment, Israel cut the Gaza fishing zone by half, from 12 nautical miles (about 13.8 statute miles) to 6 (about 6.9 statute miles), and its air force jets attacked Hamas military positions last Saturday. “The strikes were made in response to the arson balloons fired toward Israeli territory,” said a statement from the Israeli army.

Abu Saada says Cairo is unable to persuade the sides to make concessions.

“Egypt is trying seriously and actively as a mediator since it assumed a mandate from the United States during the war to play a role in finding a long-term solution, but the problem is with Israel,” Abu Saada says, while also placing part of the blame for the failure to get reconstruction efforts off the ground on the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah. “It is clear that the PA is exploiting the current situation to pressure and marginalize Hamas by demanding the entry of financial aid through it and direct supervision of the reconstruction.”

Israel has imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza since 2007, when Hamas seized power in the Strip from its rival Palestinian faction Fatah, the ruling party in the PA. Israel says the blockade is necessary to contain armed groups in the enclave.

Egypt has also maintained restrictions on Gaza.