A grand bargain is needed, between Israel, Hamas and Egypt

When it comes to Gaza, an approach centered on isolation and deterrence has not led to a real stability, resulting in repeated rounds of violent confrontation between the two parties

With the dust of the latest round of military confrontation between Hamas and Israel just settled, recent reports of rocket attacks originating from Gaza into Israel should shift the spotlight back to the Strip and to the fragility of the December 2012 ceasefire. The recurrent instability highlights the need to complement Israel’s military approach—focused on deterrence—with a broader political deal with both Hamas and Egypt.

Fortunately, such a grand bargain may now be possible.

First, both Hamas and Israel emerged from the last war declaring themselves victorious. From Israel’s point of view, the relative absence of rocket attacks after the ceasefire and the considerable damage inflicted on Hamas’s infrastructure suffice to affirm that the last round of armed confrontation resulted in a tactical victory.

Hamas, on the other side, claims victory based on its increased regional credibility and legitimacy, the relatively favourable terms set by the ceasefire, and the fact that Israel refrained from pursuing a fully-fledged ground operation. As such, both parties can enter a more stable arrangement without ‘losing face.’

Second, post-Mubarak Egypt can play an incredibly important role in delivering a more stable arrangement between the parties. Egyptian President Morsi—ideologically close to Hamas and respected by the group—has a direct interest in preventing a new round of confrontation. A war between the parties places the Egyptian President in an incredibly uncomfortable position. Morsi needs to juggle the pragmatic need to stay out of a confrontation to preserve international standing and good relations with the United States, with the need to show consistency with the Brotherhood’s anti-Zionist beliefs and to openly support Hamas. As such, Morsi would rather avoid being placed in this predicament. What’s more, Egypt and Israel both share an interest in curbing weapons smuggling and the infiltration of radical militants into Sinai.

These elements together would allow for a deal to emerge based on terms set forth by the 2012 ceasefire. Accordingly, both parties would refrain from armed attacks, while revising existing restrictions on movements of goods and people.

For its part Israel, interested in quiet on its border and in preventing the rearmament of Hamas, needs to revise the present restrictions on Gaza. Since 2006 Israel—together with a large part of the international community—has refused to deal directly with Hamas, while pursuing a policy of deterrence and isolation of the Strip.

Even though the restrictions have been partially relaxed since the summer of 2010, the strategy once described by a senior Israeli official as "no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis," has never been officially revoked.

Originally aimed at weakening Hamas, this policy has backfired, unwittingly providing them with a solid explanation as to why their electoral promises have not been fulfilled, while disempowering the local middle class and strengthening the group’s grip on the economy. What’s more, the policy has resulted in deep and lasting damage within Gaza, with a general rise in unemployment, a decaying private sector and an increase in the prices of basic goods. Also, the approach centered on isolation and deterrence has not led to a real stability, resulting in repeated rounds of violent confrontation between the two parties.

Since the December 2012 ceasefire, Israel has taken some preliminary steps to lift some  restrictions in place, for example by extending Gaza’s fishing zone, while allowing civilians to access the Access Restricted Area (ARA) up to 100 meters from the border with Israel, thereby allowing farmers to resume their activities. Israel has also relaxed rules on imports by allowing the private sector to bring into Gaza raw material for construction and heavy vehicles (both imports for the private sector had been forbidden since 2007).

But to get to a more stable arrangement, the lifting of the restrictions needs to continue. For example, a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report asserts that while extending the fishing area is important, in order for this measure to have a significant economic impact, the area needs to be extended from 6 to beyond 12 nautical miles, where high value fish can be found.

Second, even though restrictions on the ARA have softened, these changes have not always been clearly communicated and Gaza farmers still feel far from safe when approaching the areas close to the border.

Third, even though the number of trucks allowed into Gaza, both from Israel and from Egypt, has increased, imports remain far below both local demand and pre-2006 levels. For example, in the construction sector, the materials allowed into Gaza meet only roughly 15 percent of estimated demand.

Fourth, to help Gaza’s economic recovery, exports also need to improve dramatically, especially to the West Bank and Israel.  What’s more, Israel’s reactions to the recent rockets attacks has been to restore previous restrictions on Gaza, thus showing that Israel’s policy has not fundamentally changed, and that Gaza is effectively held as a bargaining chip against Hamas.  

Of course, Israel would not be the only party required to make concessions. Egypt should also play an important role in delivering a more stable arrangement by increasing the openness of its border with Gaza, as promised by Morsi to Hamas leaders in the summer of 2012, while continuing to tackle both the challenge of Salafist-jihadists, weapons smuggling, and underground tunnels in Sinai. Egypt should also continue its diplomatic function, serving as mediator and broker of all indirect communications between Hamas and Israel and using its political weight to become the guarantor of the ceasefire.

Hamas would need to preserve the ceasefire, crack down on jihadist groups in Gaza, and eventually begin to cooperate with Egypt on shutting down its underground tunnels, in exchange for normalization of the border.

This would by no means be an easy decision for Hamas. On the one hand, Hamas, as a government in charge of the well-being of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, has a clear interest in seeing an end to the isolation of the Strip. What’s more, ending the isolation would strengthen its status and its grip on power, something the group highly values.

On the other hand, Hamas would be under strong internal pressure—especially from the Qassam Brigades—not to curb the underground tunnel economy, since the group directly benefits from it. This may produce frictions within the organization. Choosing between the parochial interests of the organization and the greater well-being of the population of Gaza would represent a great governance dilemma for Hamas and highlight the difficulties of being simultaneously a government and a non-state actor. Still, a concrete opening from Israel and political pressure from the group’s new allies—including Egypt and Qatar—could push them to enter such a deal.

Ideally, this agreement would pave the way for direct engagement and recognition of Hamas. But in the absence of political will, it could also be brokered indirectly and enforced as an unsigned yet binding memorandum.

Arguing to step up engagement with Hamas and lift restrictions on Gaza will draw criticism, since it could contribute to the additional empowerment of the most “militant” actor in Palestinian politics and, by default, to the additional weakening of Fatah. This is why engaging with Hamas should not be done at the expense of direct and serious negotiations with Fatah. Also, it is worth noting that this would only be a short-term arrangement, meaning that in the longer term there is no way of evading the larger issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

About the author

Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, a lecturer at Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion University and author of the forthcoming book, Armed Political Organizations: from Conflict to Integration” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).