Netanyahu threatens to withdraw from Hamas arrangement

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is paying the price for not demanding the arrangement with Hamas include a comprehensive cease-fire that includes the West Bank.

al-monitor Israeli security forces and emergency personnel work at the scene of what the Israeli army said was a shooting attack, near the Israeli settlement of Ofra, in the occupied West Bank, Dec. 9, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

benjamin netanyahu, cease-fire, ismail haniyeh, hamas, israeli-palestinian negotiations, israeli-palestinian conflict, gaza strip, west bank

Dec 17, 2018

Two deadly attacks were carried out last week in the West Bank. On Dec. 9, seven Israelis were wounded at the entrance to the West Bank settlement of Ofra, shot from a passing vehicle. A baby delivered prematurely after his mother was injured died at the hospital. Two Israeli soldiers were killed on Dec. 13 at the Givat Asaf junction, near Ofra.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Hamas he would not accept a cease-fire in Gaza while there are terror attacks in the West Bank. Speaking after the second attack in his role as defense minister, he said, “I conveyed a clear message to Hamas: We won’t accept a situation of a truce in Gaza and terror in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. We will exact a high price for them," he warned.

But the Hamas leadership was unmoved. At a rally to mark the 31st anniversary of the movement's founding on Dec. 16, head of its political bureau Ismail Haniyeh told the crowds, “The West Bank is an integral part of the struggle and of support for the resistance. This resistance will continue.”

Addressing a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands, Haniyeh explained that it is a primary objective of Hamas to demolish President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” and promised that the deal would die and be buried in the West Bank. Haniyeh did not try to obscure any fingerprints that Hamas left on the recent West bank attacks. On the contrary, he promised that resistance would continue, though Hamas' military wing did not take responsibility for the attacks in Givat Asaf and at the entrance to Ofra. The IDF believes that a Hamas cell was responsible for both these attacks and that they could not have been carried out without support from Gaza, Turkey and Lebanon. They required the infrastructure that the deputy head of the movement’s political bureau, Saleh al-Arouri, created and continues to maintain.

One of the people involved in the attack in Ofra was Salah Barghouti, who was killed by Israeli special forces on the evening of Dec. 12. His father, Omar Barghouti, is a senior Hamas figures in the West Bank. The older Barghouti killed an Israeli in 1978 but was released from prison in the 1985 Jibril prisoner-exchange agreement. He has since been arrested on multiple occasions and has served a total of 28 years since his initial release. Salah’s brother Issam spent 11 years in Israeli prisons for various security offenses, including an attempt to abduct a soldier.

The perpetrators of the Givat Asaf attack have yet to be caught, but the IDF believes that they used the same infrastructure as the perpetrators of the Dec. 9 attack at the entrance to Ofra and may even have been part of the same cell.

As a result of the recent attacks in the West Bank, questions now hang over the arrangement in Gaza, an agreement with Hamas that Netanyahu diminishes by refering to it as a "truce" or "cease-fire." In fact, in the last few weeks, a series of arrangements have been implemented in Gaza that extend beyond the cease-fire to far-reaching relief for the Palestinians. Perhaps the most important of them is the transfer of $15 million per month to Hamas to pay the salaries of movement staffers in the Gaza Strip.

The arrangement is a lifesaver for Hamas in Gaza, so it is surprising that Netanyahu, his security cabinet and the defense establishment did not make the arrangement conditional on a comprehensive cease-fire in Gaza and the West Bank. After all, that’s what they did with Hamas in the past.

As a reminder, the first agreement with Hamas was signed during the second intifada in July 2003 by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon through Egyptian mediation. Signing for Hamas was one of the movement’s most prominent founders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. In this agreement, Hamas committed to stop all terrorist attacks in Gaza and the West Bank, while Israel committed to stop attacking Hamas targets in the occupied territories. The calm lasted just five weeks. The agreement collapsed following the bus attack in Jerusalem by the infamous Qawasme family of Hebron that left 22 Israelis dead. While the attack was apparently planned and carried out without the knowledge of the Hamas leadership in Gaza, Israel nevertheless responded with the assassination of a senior figure in the movement’s political wing, Ismail Abu Shinab.

After the assassination of Sheikh Yassin in March 2004, another agreement, mediated by Egypt’s Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, was reached between Sharon and the Hamas leadership led by Khaled Meshaal. It called for a halt to suicide attacks in exchange for a halt to the assassination of key Hamas figures. That deal was never put down on paper, but it was agreed that it would encompass all the territories. The commitment obligated the Hamas leadership to make a significant change in strategy that included strengthening its political wing so that it could take over the institutions of the Palestinian Authority (a process that ended when Hamas won the 2006 election).

Another agreement with Hamas was reached in May 2008. It also covered the West Bank and Gaza Strip and lasted about half a year. At first, both sides considered extending it for another six months, but the agreement ended with the launch of Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, in response to incessant rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel. (The military wing of Hamas believed that it could improve the terms of the cease-fire when the initial period was over by firing rockets into Israel, but the results were disastrous.) The cease-fire agreement signed in Cairo after the January 2009 military operation also covered both Gaza and the West Bank.

All this shows that each time Israel reached an understanding with Hamas, no distinction has been made between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, even after the 2007 Hamas coup in Gaza. Netanyahu and senior defense officials made a serious mistake when they failed to extend the agreement to all the territories and have Hamas agree to halt all activity against Israeli targets in Gaza and in the West Bank.

The threat to withdraw from the current understandings poses a dilemma for Netanyahu. Judging by publications on the Israel-Hamas arrangement, the movement was not explicitly ordered to halt all its armed activity in the West Bank. But if Netanyahu stops the flow of Qatari money into Gaza next month or hinders any other progress in the arrangement, Hamas will certainly consider itself absolved of its commitment to Egypt regarding Gaza.

It is all but impossible for Netanyahu to able to continue acting as though it were business as usual in Gaza when the Israeli public regards any easing of the closure as succumbing to terrorism.

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