x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Humanitarian aid boosts troubled Gaza truce

Israel's decision to allow a limited supply of aid into the Gaza Strip may strengthen the fragile ceasefire.

A man fills containers with fuel as Palestinians continue to smuggle fuel into Gaza through a tunnel beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border. Israel opened a border crossing with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Monday for the first time in two weeks, allowing in a limited amount of humanitarian aid.
A man fills containers with fuel as Palestinians continue to smuggle fuel into Gaza through a tunnel beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border. Israel opened a border crossing with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Monday for the first time in two weeks, allowing in a limited amount of humanitarian aid.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // With the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and Israel teetering, the decision by Israel to allow in a limited supply of humanitarian goods may just signal that the country is ready to renew the calm after two weeks of violence that has seen at least a dozen Gazans killed. Although it briefly threatened to block a delivery after eight Palestinian rockets were fired across the border earlier in the day, the Israeli army yesterday allowed about 30 truckloads of medicine and food to reach Gaza. Israel meanwhile continues its blockade of fuel deliveries to Gaza, resulting in blackouts across the Strip.

The army gesture was the first time since Nov 4 that Israel had allowed relief agencies to bring in much needed humanitarian supplies. The United Nations Works and Relief Agency had warned last week that it was running out of food to deliver to the 750,000 Gazans who rely on the organisation for their basic necessities. UNWRA welcomed the delivery, but said it would only last days. "Then what?" asked Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the relief organisation.

Since Nov 4, when Israeli troops entered Gaza to destroy what the army described as a tunnel that was to be used to capture Israeli soldiers, at least a dozen Palestinian militants have been killed. The incursion was seen by Palestinians as a clear violation of the terms of the ceasefire and was met by both short- and long-range rocket fire that, for the first time since June, targeted Israeli population centres near the border.

"Israel would have known this was going to be Hamas's response," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a Gaza-based political analyst. "But Israel also knows that Hamas is very much committed to the ceasefire and does not want to end it at this point," Mr Abusada said. He added that the ceasefire would likely survive and called the recent violence a "controlled escalation". "Israel is preparing for elections and I don't think it wants any major operation in Gaza until at least after that time," he said. Hamas, meanwhile, "has benefited from the past five months of calm to consolidate its grip over the Gaza Strip".

Israeli media reported yesterday disagreements between the Israeli army's top brass and the government, with the former warning against "war-mongering" by the politicians, according to Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper. However, Yehuda Ben-Meir, a political analyst with the Institute for National Security in Tel Aviv, said such disagreements were only to be expected, with army leaders concerned with the safety of their soldiers and politicians responding to public pressure.

"The anger among the population is clear and the people in Sderot do not want to live in this situation," he said, referring to an Israeli town on the Gaza border that was a frequent target of Palestinian homemade rockets. Mr Ben-Meir discounted any suggestion that Israeli politicians, whether the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, the defence minister, or even the top opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, were seeking to turn the ceasefire into a campaign issue. "All the factions in Israel have a vested interest that the quiet should continue," Mr Ben-Meir said. "The coming elections have nothing to do with it at all."

Nevertheless, domestic political considerations are likely playing a significant role on both sides. The ceasefire was agreed for six months and is due to run out on Dec 19. Both Israel and Hamas will seek to send clear signals to each other to improve the terms of the agreement. Israeli ministers will be keen to be seen as tough on Hamas, but Hamas would seem to have a stronger hand since a major Israeli military operation in Gaza, while potentially popular among the Israeli electorate, might backfire on those who ordered it. "A major Israeli operation would be a joker in the pack. No one would be able to predict what would happen," Mr Ben-Meir said. Hamas would want Israel to allow more goods to enter the often-shut border crossings into the impoverished coastal strip and guarantee the supply of fuel and humanitarian goods. But jockeying for a better deal is only one of Hamas's considerations, Mr Abusada said.

"Hamas has been under heavy pressure from Palestinian and Arab public opinion since the failure of the reconciliation talks, so Hamas absorbed some of this pressure with the escalation with Israel," he said. "It needed to position itself so that it is again seen as the leader of the resistance." Hence, a new ceasefire deal may also hinge on what Egypt can bring to the table in terms of incentives for Hamas to agree to a reconciliation deal with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. Mr Abbas recently angrily decried Israeli actions in Gaza as a "war crime" and yesterday met with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, where aides said he asked Mr Olmert to restore the ceasefire. This suggests that Mr Abbas is seeking to ensure that the PA is not seen as in any way supporting Israeli actions against Hamas in spite of their domestic rivalry. The next days will be crucial for the sustainability of the ceasefire and the continued flow or otherwise of humanitarian goods may well be the clearest signal as to whether it will survive, and with it, lingering hopes for Palestinian reconciliation. okarmi@thenational.ae