Secret negotiations between Israel and Hamas, through Egypt, the United Nations and Qatar, may lead to a historic deal that is expected to be reached by the end of this month at the most, according to various reports. But not all will be celebrating. President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian National Authority (PNA) may emerge as the main losers. The five-year truce between the two sides will come at the expense of Palestinian reconciliation and is likely to become the cornerstone for United States President Donald Trump’s much-touted “ultimate deal”. Such a deal will uphold the de facto separation between Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
But crucially, it will present Gaza and its Islamist rulers as the alternative to the classical two-state solution. The economic rewards will be hefty for Hamas and by extension to the two million inhabitants of Gaza. Israel will lift its 10-year economic blockade, open the border crossing and allow for the rehabilitation of the Gaza port. Egypt will facilitate the use of Al Arish airport and dedicate a special industrial zone for multi-billion-dollar projects for the benefit of the strip. Qatar, it appears, is willing to bankroll most of these projects.
It sounds too good to be true. Tension between Israel and Hamas remains high as the two sides engage in military altercations on an almost daily basis. The Israeli government appears to be divided, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu putting additional conditions that includes the handing over of Israeli soldiers and remains by Hamas. The thorny issue of Hamas’ military wing is also standing in the way of a final deal. In return for an agreement, Hamas will put an end to weekly protests along the borders with Israel and terminate the launching of incendiary balloons and kites that have caused damage to nearby Israeli farms.
Egyptian efforts had focused on implementing a reconciliation deal reached last October between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo. But both sides remain wary of each other. Under that agreement, Hamas would hand over full authority back to the PNA. The question of Hamas’ rockets and weapons is a deal breaker. The UN’s mediation, through special Mideast envoy Nickolay Mladenov, focuses more on the economic windfall of a long-term truce with Israel.
Egypt is suspicious of Qatar’s role in all of this. Indeed that role appears malicious for Abbas and his PNA. There is indeed lack of transparency and Hamas seems to be enjoying the added attention. Previously, US officials had held meetings in Washington to discuss alleviating the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which, according to the UN and other agencies, is extremely dire. The PNA was not invited to these meetings and Abbas remains committed to boycotting any contact with the US since last year’s decision by Trump to relocate the American Embassy to occupied Jerusalem and recognise the city as Israel’s capital.
But why Gaza? The so-called “ultimate deal” appears to consider the strip as an important piece in a large jigsaw puzzle. More than 80 per cent of Gaza’s population is refugees who are cared for by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees. The US decided last year to suspend its annual contribution to UNRWA’s budget; about $300 million (Dh1.10 billion). That move has forced the struggling agency to cut some of its aid programmes in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The US move aims at defunding the agency and putting pressure to transfer its responsibilities to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Trump’s admission that he has taken occupied Jerusalem off the negotiating table is now being followed by an attempt to strike off the refugee issue and the right of return from future negotiations. It is not a coincidence that these moves are being adopted at a time when Israel has passed the nation-state basic law; effectively restricting the right of self-determination to Jews in Israel.
Hamas, for its own selfish reasons, is willing to conform to these overtures believing that the alternative will diminish its power and authority. A long truce with Israel will ensure its survival and may even lead to some sort of recognition by the US. Its leadership is adopting pragmatic positions in the wake of changing geopolitical realities in the region. Iran is under tremendous economic pressure domestically and it can no longer sustain its proxies, including Hamas.
Hamas is now willing to sacrifice Palestinian reconciliation in return for a rejuvenated role. It may even be willing to offer itself as an alternative to Abbas’ waning PNA. But what it will discover later on is that it has become a pawn in a much bigger game. Israel’s right-wing government has no stomach for any ideas that include withdrawal from the West Bank. That leaves Gaza as the only place where an embryonic Palestinian state can be established. A Hamas-Israel truce will alter the trajectory of Palestinian aspiration for statehood for good.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.