The tense situation in Gaza will see temporary reprieve, after Hamas and Israel agreed to a 10-day deescalation agreement on Friday, the culmination of a flurry of Egyptian mediation efforts over the last week.
While a long-term truce agreement between the Palestinian movement and Israel was reported as imminent at several points last year, the talks have repeatedly sputtered, become marked by distrust, and given way to military brinkmanship that sees Israel use asymmetrical force.
In a sign the distrust continues, Friday’s deal is being billed as a “test,” despite Hamas having put forward a more ambitious proposal in a Tuesday meeting with the Egyptian General Intelligence Service delegation, according to a source close to Hamas, who is familiar with the talks in Gaza over the last week and spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
The broad outlines of the deal that the Egyptian delegation took to Gaza on Thursday, after consulting with Israeli officials in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, will have Hamas and Israel return to the de-escalation agreement struck last October, which fell apart in early February amid delays of promised Qatari money, according to the source.
During this 10-day period, Hamas will halt the deployment of nighttime disturbance units along the border with Israel, as well as the use of incendiary balloons. Israel, in turn, will not bomb any Hamas military sites, and will expand the fishing zone off the coast of the besieged strip, grant greater electricity facilities, allow more goods to enter into Gaza, and refrain from delaying the disbursal of the next installment of the US$15 million in Qatar aid money.
If there is any breach in the deescalation, Israel communicated that it will respond with an “iron fist,” the source says.
Indeed, the parameters of the deal were put to the test almost immediately.
Hours after Hamas gave its approval, a projectile was launched from Gaza into the southern occupied territories. In response, Israel shelled several several Hamas military targets, including Al-Ja’bary Military site east to Gaza City, Al-Bahreyya military site north east Gaza, military site around the new port western Khan Younis, in addition to bombing an open farming land east to Johr Al-Deek twice with drone missiles.
When contacted by Mada Masr late on Friday night, military Hamas source denied having received orders to launch rocket.
It is also highly unlikely that any of the other main factions launched the attack. “Palestinian factions had pressured Hamas into accepting the agreement,” the source close to the Hamas-Egypt negotiations told Mada Masr. The factions consider the agreement a good opportunity for a deal to partially lift the siege for Gazans, the source added.
Hamas has not launched a counterattack in response to the Israeli airstrikes, suggesting that Friday’s deal remains in place.
Mada Masr has not been able to confirm the party responsible for Friday’s projectile.
If the agreement continues to hold, Egypt plans to arrange several meetings to discuss other demands that both Hamas and Israel have, according to the source close Hamas.
These demands center on the Great March of Return protests—which began in March 2018 and have resulted in the death of 257 protesters and around 30,000 injured, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry spokesperson. While Israel is pushing to bring the protests to a halt, Hamas will only consider the condition in exchange for a full lifting of the siege.
Feeling that it was in a “position of power” in negotiations, having not answered Israeli airstrikes last week, Hamas pushed unsuccessfully for more concessions for the deal in the Tuesday meeting with GIS delegation. The delegation was led by the intelligence body’s deputy head Omar Hanafy, according to the source close to Hamas.
This proposal included the construction of an electricity line into Gaza, the extension of the fishing zone to 20 nautical miles off the coast, the allowance of more goods and materials into Gaza, and the creation of major United Nations-led projects.
In the Tuesday meeting, the Egyptian delegation rejected some of Hamas’s demands, including the construction of a seaport and an airport, as well as a prisoners exchange, Hamas’s political bureau secretary in Gaza Salah al-Bardawil told Mada Masr. According to Bardawil, the delegation criticized Hamas for raising such demands, prompting the movement to back down. The Egyptian delegation indicated its priority to avoid providing any justification Israel could use to bomb Gaza.
In return, Egypt pledged to compel Israel to have its snipers refrain from targeting peaceful civilians during marches.
The high stakes for both Hamas and Israel will test the political will to adhere to Friday’s deal. Cash-strapped and facing a series of punitive measures from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Hamas has moved to implement an austerity program this year, drastically cutting salaries for every Hamas-supported company and publication.
Meanwhile, Israel has elections in April, with the Gaza situation taking center stage as warhawk and former Israeli military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz challenges Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
However, Hamas remains skeptical that Israel will adhere to the agreement. On Thursday, after an Israeli tank shelled a Hamas military post close to the border, Hamas spokesperson Abdel Latif al-Qanoua told Mada Masr that he believes Israel’s right-wing government will use escalation in Gaza to boost its popularity ahead of the elections, saying Hamas is prepared for a military confrontation.
The mistrust has not tarnished what the source close to Hamas describes as a “gradually improving” relationship with Egypt, especially in light of last month’s release of four Qassam Brigades members who have been held in Egypt since 2015.