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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Israel could have a spate of calm. Gaza might get some relief. But for how long?

There is every reason to be sceptical about how long any ceasefire between Israel and Hamas might last

Trucks full of goods depart from the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom cargo crossing with Israel, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. AP
Trucks full of goods depart from the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom cargo crossing with Israel, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. AP

After coming to the brink of outright conflict last week, Israel and Hamas are reportedly finalising yet another comprehensive ceasefire. However, there is every reason to be sceptical about how long it will last or far it can go.

The terms are strikingly similar to deals following the Israeli-Hamas conflicts in 2014 and 2012. Both sides will agree to an immediate ceasefire. There will be some reopening of crossings and an expansion of fishing zones off the Gaza coast. Various forms of humanitarian aid may be allowed. Prisoners, captured soldiers and remains, particularly of Israelis held by Hamas, will be released or exchanged.

Ultimately, there is a supposed commitment to the rebuilding of Gaza’s infrastructure and even the opening of an Israeli-controlled or monitored sea corridor from the Gaza port to Cyprus.

The ceasefire is likely to be immediate and, for a time, effective.

The issues of the crossings, fishing zones and humanitarian aid will probably depend on the return of Israeli prisoners and remains held in Gaza.

As for the rest, including infrastructure reconstruction and new sea or even air routes into Gaza, it’s hard to imagine that the agreement will function well enough to allow for much of that.

This agreement will be highly significant because it would represent a real turning point in the Israeli attitude towards Gaza and a major accomplishment for Egyptian diplomacy.

For almost two years, the Egyptians have been strongly pushing an initiative to address the growing humanitarian and political crisis in Gaza.

Last summer, Cairo spearheaded a plan for aid and reconstruction in Gaza and an opening of the territory to the outside world, based on the reintroduction of the Palestinian Authority to the area, with the PA controlling crossings and most key ministries in the Gaza government.

Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement that would have allowed for that in theory and Israel and the United States agreed to let it go forward.

However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas believed he was being lured into a dangerous political trap. He feared the PA would be left with the responsibility of governing Gaza without sufficient authority and funding while Hamas would retain its weapons and therefore the ability to conduct an independent foreign and defence policy.

In other words, the PA would assume all the painful responsibilities without sufficient resources or support while Hamas would retain the key rights of government in Gaza.

He was also deeply concerned a reconciliation agreement would open the door for Hamas to return politically to the West Bank and begin to agitate for control of Palestinian politics there, as well as Gaza.

So as the implementation of the agreement progressed, Mr Abbas began demanding that Hamas fully disarm, saying that he would not agree to a “Hezbollah scenario” in Gaza.

Hamas wouldn’t hear of this and the whole thing came to a grinding halt.

The key was that Israel switched its position, backing away from the Egyptian plan and supporting Mr Abbas’s demands on Hamas.

Ever since, while all parties have agreed that an initiative for aid and reconstruction in Gaza was imperative, no one else wanted to implement anything that would unduly strengthen Hamas. Yet no formula could be found to reassure Mr Abbas sufficiently.

In recent weeks, amid mounting tensions, a spiralling death toll and increasing mutual attacks between Gaza and Israel accelerated, Israel changed its mind once again.

Egyptian officials and the UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned Israel that it faced a stark choice: reach some kind of arrangement with Hamas that bypasses Mr Abbas, thereby strengthening the Islamist group, or continue the downward spiral towards another imminent conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relented. Two weeks ago, he quietly went to Egypt and agreed to this familiar formula.

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Israel is now likely to get a period of quiet. Gaza should get a degree of relief. How far it will go remains to be seen, given how tenuous and unrealised earlier, virtually identical, agreements have proven.

Yet this is potentially a serious blow to Mr Abbas and a considerable victory for Hamas as well as a significant achievement for Egypt.

The Islamists will again claim that “resistance” has won the day and that only direct pressure on Israel, particularly violence and, above all, rocket attacks, get Israeli attention.

Moreover, an agreement could bring the threat of Qatar’s re-entry in the Palestinian equation in a significant way. With Mr Abbas and the PA being bypassed, only Doha is ready, willing and able to pay Hamas salaries, subsidise its fuel needs and bankroll the Hamas side of the equation.

Along with its recent $15 billion mini-bailout of Turkey, the agreement represents the return of Qatar to a much more prominent regional role since the Arab quartet’s boycott began last summer.

Hamas is calling this a “hudna”, which means, among other things, a pause. That’s all this is likely to be.

Hopefully the long-suffering people of Gaza can find some much-needed relief. And an agreement is certainly better than another conflict.

But nothing has been resolved and many bad actors, not least Hamas, are being strengthened in the process.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington