GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A truce seems to have taken a tentative hold between Hamas and Israel, at least as of April 1. Israel has reopened the Kerem Shalom crossing for commercial goods and the Erez crossing for pedestrian traffic with the Gaza Strip, and allowed Palestinians to fish off the coast of the besieged territory.
On March 25, Israel had closed these crossings and banned fishing off Gaza’s coast in response to the injury of seven Israelis north of Tel Aviv by a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip earlier that day.
The recent calm came March 31, just hours after Israeli artillery shelled two military positions of Hamas in the center of the Gaza Strip, in response to the launch of five rockets from Gaza that landed in open areas in the vicinity of the towns adjacent to the Strip. Israeli military sources accused the Palestinian Islamic Jihad faction of being behind this attack.
A day earlier, on March 30, the Israeli army killed four Palestinian protesters in the rallies on the Gaza border marking the anniversary of the Great Return March and popular protests to break Israel's siege on the Strip.
An Israeli army statement the same day estimated the number of protesters at around 40,000. It noted that hours after the start of the protest the number fell to 19,000, with most protesters staying away from the border fence.
During the protest, Hamas deployed, for the first time, members in orange uniforms along the eastern border of the Gaza Strip to prevent protesters from engaging in potential clashes with Israeli soldiers. Hamas sought through this gesture to assert its commitment to the Egyptian-sponsored truce understandings with Israel. Hamas was heavily criticized by human rights groups and even other Palestinian factions for its violence against protesters decrying the living conditions in the Strip.
Egypt has intensified negotiations for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip since March 27. An Egyptian security delegation held successive meetings with Hamas leaders in Gaza and with Israeli officials in Tel Aviv for this purpose.
“The recent Egyptian efforts have resulted in understandings between the Palestinian factions and Israel on the basis of calm in exchange for breaking the siege,” a senior Hamas source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Based on these understandings, Israel would allow the entry of Qatari funds to Gaza at a rate of $40 million per month, up from $15 million a month. These funds will be channeled to support poor families, the health sector and temporary employment programs in Gaza.”
The source affirmed that the understandings would also allow Qatar to cover the cost of fuel for the power plant in Gaza until the end of 2019. “Israel has also approved the establishment of two industrial zones, one in the east of Gaza City and another in the northern Gaza Strip, and the establishment of a hospital to treat cancer in Gaza,” the source added. “Israel would guarantee the entry of 1,200 truckloads of goods per day to Gaza and the export of 120 trucks from the Gaza Strip. Palestinian fishermen will also be allowed to fish in the Gaza [Mediterranean] sea at a distance of 12 nautical miles.”
Meanwhile, the source added, Hamas agreed to stop the weekly protests on Tuesday nights by the so-called night confusion units along the eastern border of the Gaza Strip. "Hamas would stop launching toward Israel balloons and kites outfitted with incendiary and explosive devices, which caused fires on Israeli farms adjacent to the Gaza Strip. Hamas, however, would keep organizing one return march a week, on Friday, 300 meters [328 yards] away from the border fence in the eastern Gaza Strip.”
The truce deal follows intensified return march protests on the eastern and northern borders of the Gaza Strip in an unprecedented manner. The night confusion units in the Gaza Strip warned March 23 that they would escalate their activities to cover the entire border, on a daily basis, from 7 p.m. until dawn, near Israeli military and residential compounds. Walla Hebrew news website reported the next day that protesters lobbed explosive devices into Israel from the east. Warning sirens were heard several times over Israel's Eshkol border region.
Haim Jelin, former chairman of the Eshkol Regional Council, told the Hebrew-language 103 FM radio station March 24, “The state of Israel doesn't understand what's happening in the Gaza vicinity. The civilians' steadfastness has been affected. The prime minister should hear the chaos we face at the fence. Warning sirens and balloons were fired all through the night.”
Hamas leader Yahya Moussa told Al-Monitor, “Hamas had recently stepped up its return marches activities because of Israel's failure to respond to Egypt's previous efforts to reach understandings to break the siege on Gaza.”
Moussa said Hamas deliberately timed the escalation, as Israeli parliamentary elections are just around the corner April 9. “This is the best opportunity to pressure [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu to reach calm. The continued insecurity in southern Israel could destroy Netanyahu's political future.”
Iyad al-Qara, a political analyst at the Felesteen newspaper in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Incendiary balloons fired at Israel are the protesters’ weapon to force Israel to break the siege of Gaza. Hamas had stopped launching these balloons Oct. 10 in exchange for Israel allowing the entry of Qatari fuel to operate the Gaza power plant. On Jan. 9, in the wake of Israel's Dec. 21 killing of four protesters in a return march, flaming balloons were again fired across the border into Israel.”
Like Moussa, Qara said Hamas is trying to force Netanyahu, who seeks to win the upcoming Israeli elections, to abide by understandings to ease the siege of Gaza, in return for a calm security situation on the Gaza border. Talal Awkal, a political analyst for al-Ayyam newspaper in Gaza, agreed, adding, “Whoever wins the upcoming Israeli elections, any new Israeli prime minister will have to accept these understandings as the key to keeping things quiet in the south. Otherwise, the only alternative is military confrontation with the resistance in Gaza.”
Ayman al-Rafati, an expert on Israeli affairs and a political author for the Hamas-affiliated al-Resalah website in Gaza, believes Netanyahu is indeed making politically motivated concessions and has just two options to deal with the return marches.
“The first is the war against Gaza, a difficult option with a heavy price to pay, including the loss or capture of Israeli soldiers,” he told Al-Monitor. “The second option is reaching [agreements] to ease the siege of Gaza in exchange for ensuring calm for residents of the towns adjacent to Gaza. Netanyahu chose this option as an achievement that can be exploited in the upcoming elections.”
Meanwhile, Felesteen's Qara said Netanyahu's cooperation will end once he gets what he wants. “Netanyahu and the next Israeli government will renege on these understandings once the elections are over," he said.
However, Moussa warned, “Israel's failure to meet its commitments would mean the return of all forms and activities of the return marches, but this time with greater momentum.”