The Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI) conference on July 31st, day 24 of the war, devoted to “Israel-Gaza Round #3”, the Notre Dame Center on the border between East and West Jerusalem. Dr. Anat Kurz, Director of Research, INSS and Prof. Mkhaimar Abu Sada, Al-Azhar University (via video conference, Moderator: Dan Goldenblatt, co-director of IPCRI.
The cause of the war
Professor Abu Sada: “I understand that in a way Hamas is responsible for provoking Israel into this round of fighting. […] Hamas was under political isolation [...and] extreme pressure.”
Abu Sada spoke about Egypt's destruction of tunnels and closure of the only terminal between Gaza and Egypt. It left Hamas unable to pay 480,000 employees for a few months and then forced to seek reconciliation with Fateh.
However, “Reconciliation was not a strategic option for Hamas.” It didn't have the money to pay salaries, on top of which there was incitement and accusations between Fateh and Hamas. A Fateh politician who tried to visit a hospital in Gaza was prohibited by Hamas. (Professor Abu Sada said Hamas was still committed to a unity government but a reshaped one, with different ministers.)
As its problems were unsolved, Hamas provoked war in the hope that Israel would lift the siege.
Dr. Kurz said that just as Israel is deaf to criticism, in Europe people are deaf to Israel's claims: “No one is really interested in who started this cycle because of the background” of occupation in the West Bank.
In answer to a question about Israel's portrayal abroad, Kurz said: “I don't really like 'Israel's right to defend itself' because it's apologetic. I mean, who discusses Germany's right to defend itself or France's right to defend itself? It should go without saying. But it did not manage to convey the message of really trying hard to make things different. It's because of the background and the background colors, everything, it's the occupation. It's because of what's going on in the West Bank […] Israel did not manage to convince anyone that if the Gaza Strip is occupied by anyone, it's occupied by Hamas. As for the siege...if we go to the extremes...it's maybe laying siege to the Gaza Strip, but it's not occupying.”
Israeli policy change
1) Pragmatism towards Hamas rule
“There are two major changes in Israeli policy.” said Kurz. The first change is, “official recognition [...] there are certain benefits to leaving Hamas with some the ability to control the Strip.” She said this was true despite everything - the war and the offensive against infrastructure.
There is “interest that Hamas is still there in the aftermath of the war, because it's the only political body in the Gaza Strip that is likely to be able to enforce any kind of policy.” Kurz said this was a major change from calls made in Operation Cast Led to dismantle or wipe out Hamas, calls made less strongly in Pillar of Defense.
“Now Hamas may be [seen as] some kind of a partner for Israel for restoring quiet.”
Problematic because by confirming Hamas rule, Israel, as well as Egypt and the international community, confirm the split between Gaza and the West Bank.
2) Seeing the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a partner
A second change is the “recognition that maybe, maybe, a factor that could play a very positive role in advancing a ceasefire its implementation and regional relations [...] is the Palestinian Authority.” She said this was different to a month ago and could be grounds for broader cooperation.
The significance of the changes was the acceptance of the idea of a unity government, which could help mitigate the negative effects of the split between Gaza and the West Bank.
Was it a mistake for Israel to boycott Hamas?
Kurz said that it was a mutual boycott (“Talking to Hamas about what? Hamas did not want to talk to them”) and that Hamas had also been boycotted by other Arab nations, as well as other international bodies.
“To be frank, the siege was not complete. There was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza before the war. The situation was bad. Prospects were poor. There was no optimism. Isolation? Of course. A sense of siege? Yes. But it was not a blockade in the full, practical, legal meaning of the term. And Hamas was presented with demands. Fulfil them and the boycott will be lifted.”
“The situation is not so simple that if Israel would not boycott Hamas, everything would be great.” Kurz pointed to Hamas' bitter relationships with Egypt and Fateh.
She said the tragedy was that it takes events like to carry the potential for change.
Looking to the future
Abu Sada said: “My hesitation is that Egyptians are negotiating the terms.” And he reiterated that Israel “cannot have a ceasefire without ending the blockade.”
When asked about the possibility for Hamas moderating its stances, he said: “There are those in Hamas who believe the only way to deal with Israel is resistance.” He said others within Hamas who wanted to resolve the conflict were there to stay too. He said if Israel helped make the situation in Gaza easier, they might become more moderate.
“They need space to breathe to moderate their political views.”
Kurz seemed frustrated and sceptical regarding the future of peace talks: “Now it will be even more difficult for Israel and the PA to talk about going back to the negotiating table. Because what the war did, is it brought forward all the scepticism and the stress and the fears especially among Israelis. It would be quite difficult to convince an Israeli who just saw all this political mess to support any redeployment in the West Bank.”
However, she thought it was too early to see how the contradictions play out. Will there be further reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh or a broadening split? “We hold onto shreds of positive signs.”