THE GAZA STRIP: FROM “SINGAPORE OF THE MEDITERRANEAN” TO A PALESTINIAN STATE?

Author : Admin | Monday, February 5, 2018
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imgThe recent developments that brought to the attention the Palestinian question[1] also made the analysts consider the geopolitical shifts and the new issues confronting the Gaza Strip, the small parcel of land near the Mediterranean that has increasing chances of becoming, if not the “Singapore of the Mediterranean”[2], the core of a new Palestinian State.

The Gaza Strip is one of the Palestinian territories under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, situatedon the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and borders Egypt on the southwest for 11 kilometers and Israel on the east and north along a 51 km border.

With a total area of 365 square kilometers and around 1.85 million Palestinians, Gaza is considered the world’s 3rd most densely populated area, also because the Israeli buffer zone in the Strip renders much land off-limits to Gaza’s Palestinians. Gaza has an annual population growth rate of 2.91% (2014 estimate), the 13th highest in the world, and it is expected to increase to 2.1 million in 2020. By that time, Gaza may be rendered unlivable, if present trends continue. People aged 15 to 29 make up a third of the population of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip and a disproportionate number of the many unemployed.

Gaza’s rapidly growing population is already suffocating in this tiny patch of territory. In May 2017, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that Gaza was on the brink of “systemic collapse.”

Like the rest of the region, Gaza was part of the Ottoman Empire and after World War I it was occupied by the United Kingdom (1918–1948), Egypt (1948–1967), and Israel, which in 1994 granted the Palestinian Authority self-governance through the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Despite Israel’s 2005 official disengagement, Gaza is still considered as occupied by Israel, and additional restrictions are placed on Gaza by Egypt. Israel controls Gaza’s air and maritime space, and six of Gaza’s land crossings. It reserves the right to enter Gaza at will with its military and maintains a no-go buffer zone within the Gaza territory. Gaza is dependent on Israel for its water, electricity, telecommunications and other utilities.

Since the elections in 2006 (that were considered free), Gaza is governed by the Palestinian Islamic organization Hamas. Since Hamas is considered a terrorist organization, since June 2007 Gaza was placed under an international economic and political boycott. Due to the blockade, the population is not free to leave or enter the Gaza Strip, nor allowed to freely import or export goods.

In 2007, after a civil war, Hamas evicted from Gaza the western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Fatah (led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas), which was left with autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Over the next decade, Hamas and Fatah deepened each its control over its territory, making it increasingly difficult to forge compromises. Previous efforts to reach a negotiated reconciliation between the two factions have been announced since, but eventually failed.

The 2017 “preliminary reconciliation”

In October 2017, Hamas and Fatah signed another “preliminary reconciliation” deal in Cairo, in the presence of Egyptian intelligence officials.

Under the agreement, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority is to resume full control of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. According to reports, the agreement would also see Palestinian Authority forces take control of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. In exchange, the PA is expected to lift crippling restrictions on electricity supply to Gaza that for months affected the lives of its 2 million residents.

The 2017 round of talks have focused on issues with broader areas of agreement between the two sides – leaving out the most contentious points, most significantly the future of Hamas’ 25,000-strong armed wing in Gaza.

Analysts pointed out that the deal is similar to previous attempts at reconciliation between the two sides and which were unveiled with public declarations of unity, only to quickly run into the sand.

They also consider that the October 2017 breakthrough – while provisional – has been driven by the changing dynamics in the wider Middle East, which has seen Egypt move to displace Qatar and Turkey and become a key broker in Palestinian affairs, with both Hamas and Fatah increasingly reliant on Cairo’s sponsorship. Palestinian officials suggested that given Egypt’s role, neither Fatah nor Hamas wanted to be seen as obstacles to the negotiations – a fact that had given momentum to the talks.

Any agreement to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to deal with the fate of Gaza and its residents. The international community views Gaza as a pressing humanitarian issue, as well as a security threat to Israel and Egypt, because of the control of Hamas, which is widely designated as a terrorist group.

Gaza under Hamas: tunnels, terrorism and dangerous ties

Notwithstanding its becoming the ruler in Gaza, Hamas did not completely shed its previous identity as a militant opposition movement whose key operating engine is the idea of resistance. During the last decade, Hamas established itself as a hybrid entity that vacillates between being a government and a movement. Although it developed official civilian and security governance systems and established a domestic and foreign image as the ruler in Gaza, it continued to dominate a network of resistance movements. In this context, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (IDQB), Hamas’ military wing, and the movement’s political and civilian wings were highly visible. These wings continued to operate with strong links between them, for the most part “behind the scenes” – mainly between the military wing and the internal security forces, and between the movement’s institutions and the civilian government ministries.

There is currently no evident internal threat to the Hamas government, and in fact, the public has demonstrated its reluctance to take action against the movement, mainly due to its fear of violent retaliation. Other factions, perceived as having limited power, include Islamic Jihad, Fatah (and representatives of the Palestinian Authority), the Salafist faction comprising a number of “recalcitrant” organizations, and local politically unaffiliated leaders. In the current situation, the Hamas government tends to be defined locally as the lesser of two evils, preferable to governmental chaos or to the rise of more extremist factions.

Tunnels for attacks and survival

Since the blockade instituted by Israel in June 2007 until the 2013 Egyptian military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, Gaza survived economically through a broad system of smuggling tunnels – which also fed the economy of the Sinai peninsula. The smuggling operations were so broad that virtually every product in demand could be brought into Gaza.

There are more than 1,000 smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Sinai border, underneath the Philadelphi Route. These tunnels are mostly used for smuggling goods, but also for smuggling weapons and people.

With the tunnels rose a new class of nouveau riche in Gaza who paid the Hamas officials substantial sums to allow their operations to thrive. Hamas developed a Ministry for Tunnel Affairs and imposed taxes on the smuggling operations as well as allowing common citizens to lease tunnels on an hourly, daily, weekly or monthly basis. However, after the 2013 regime change, Egypt closed down almost all of the smuggling tunnels and continued to impose its own closure policy on Gaza, and Gaza’s isolation has increased to unbearable levels.

Israel’s underground wall

According to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) assessments, Israel will complete an underground wall – designed to eliminate the tunnel threat to Israeli communities located near Gaza – stretching along the 60-kilometer (37-mile) border with Gaza by 2019. The wall is the product of several years of research and development, and is costing Israel 150 million shekels ($42.5 million) per kilometer. Many details about the wall remain classified, but IDF sources have indicated that it will contain electronic sensors. These sensors will issue alerts to military control centers, sounding the alarm about suspicious tunnel-digging activity. The control rooms, would, in turn, be able to order action if necessary.

Similar military control rooms are also being built along the Gaza border to handle intelligence coming in from Israel’s above-ground border fence. Sensors installed on the barrier, together with units from the IDF’s Combat Intelligence Collection Corps, are joined by drones, spy balloons and radars, all of which feed the control centers with a flow of data and alert them to suspicious activity.

Wilayat Sinai: the Daesh factor

At the same time, the Gaza tunnels were also closed by the Egyptian Daesh-affiliated group Wilayat Sinai (the former Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis – ABM) which tried to block the agreement between Hamas and the Egyptian government. Additionally, Daesh instructed the Sinai Bedouin smugglers in December 2016 to stop the trafficking of goods into Gaza, threatening to punish violators.

Wilayat Sinai’s strategy is also to exploit the blockade imposed on Gaza to blackmail the Hamas administration and pressure it into ceasing its crackdown against its supporters in Gaza. To get Wilayat Sinai to reopen the tunnels, Hamas reduced its arrest campaigns against Salafi-jihadists and released a large number of detainees who were not involved in violent incidents.

From allies to foes

For years, Palestinian and Sinai-based militant groups relied on transactional collaboration. Wilayat Sinai’s predecessor, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, emerged as a local jihadist group, exploiting Bedouin grievances and a weak Egyptian state presence. In 2014, ABM’s leadership pledged allegiance to Daesh and became Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province), receiving funds and guidance from the group’s core.

However, since Wilayat Sinai does not enjoy diaspora or state support, it depends primarily on local mobilization and neighboring collaboration. Some of this support has come from cooperation with groups like Hamas. For Hamas, Wilayat Sinai is central to the cross-border smuggling network. This relationship became more important following the Egyptian military’s campaign to destroy the region’s underground tunnel infrastructure. Israeli intelligence reports suggest that Hamas’ armed wing transferred tens of thousands of dollars per month to Wilayat Sinai to secure arms shipments to Gaza.

Wilayat Sinai, in turn, relied on weapon flows in the reverse direction and its ties with Hamas played an important role in helping it emerge as a growing threat to the Egyptian regime. After the July 2013 events, violence in the Sinai grew and the ruling Egyptian military regime was initially hostile to Hamas, so Wilayat Sinai and Hamas faced mutual enemies, the Egyptian regime and Israel. Hamas’ military wing is said to have provided logistics and military training for Wilayat Sinai, and some Wilayat Sinai leaders allegedly used Gaza to evade Egyptian security forces.

Despite combating its own Daesh-affiliated groups in Gaza, Hamas overlooked ideological differences with Wilayat Sinai to preserve its economic interests and strategic position.

However, over the past year, Hamas realized that closer relations with Cairo constitute a better way forward. Following high-level discussions between Egyptian and Hamas officials, Egypt eased border restrictions with Gaza and is allowing more essential supplies to enter the Strip. Hamas, in turn, adopted harsher measures to crack down on Daesh-affiliated fighters in Gaza and around the Sinai border.

On the other hand, Hamas is seeing Wilayat Sinai as a threat to its regime security. According to Palestinian reports, dozens of Hamas operatives, including fighters from elite units and senior members have defected to Wilayat Sinai.

Wilayat Sinai reacted in a video released at the beginning of this year, calling for violent attacks against Hamas, which was viewed as “apostate”. While Daesh’s stated motivation was that Hamas failed to prevent U.S. President Donald Trump from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Hamas’ improved ties with Cairo and growing crackdown on Salafi-jihadists in Gaza were cited as the main drivers behind Wilayat Sinai’s new call to arms.

It is not clear yet whether Wilayat Sinai’s leadership is really seeking to end its relations with Hamas militants or will continue looking the other way while cross-border smuggling operations continue, but a confrontation with Hamas threatens to further destabilize an already volatile region.

 

 

Hamas vs. the salafi-jihadists

One of the main reasons prompting fighters to emigrate from Gaza is the tension between Hamas and the local Salafi-jihadist groups. This tension is not new and has deep ideological roots that started to surface a few years ago.

Hamas belongs intellectually to a school of the Muslim Brotherhood, practicing pragmatism in government and politics in line with the demands of governing the blockaded Strip. It also attempts to present itself as a national liberation movement against an occupying power.

On the other hand, Salafi-jihadist groups have more radical concepts of the way life should be managed in Gaza, and demand the immediate application of Sharia laws. Furthermore, they promote open confrontation with Israel and the rejection of Hamas’ truces with Israel. They also accuse Hamas of abandoning the resistance against Israel and of allowing Shiism to spread over the Gaza Strip to gain Iran’s support. They also see themselves as belonging more to a global jihadist movement rather than to a national Palestinian resistance.

The two parties maintained a rather tense co-existence. Salafi jihadists launched numerous missiles towards Israeli settlements, thus embarrassing Hamas. Hamas, in turn, says their objective is non-jihadi and accuses Salafi jihadists of adhering to an extremist ideology. Over the past years, Hamas carried out arrest campaigns against Salafi-jihadists in Gaza, causing fighters to flee to Sinai and to the Daesh Wilayat, bringing combat and operational experience. Also, since early 2016, Wilayat Sinai has benefited from several experts from Gaza in digging tunnels.

Dangerous ties with Iran

According to Israeli analysts, the trend toward escalation intensifies in view of the Hamas decision to change the rules of the game in the Palestinian arena. In recent months, Hamas seems engaged in promoting the reconciliation with Fatah as an opportunity to rid itself of civic responsibility for what happens in the Gaza Strip (although without giving up its military force), and also to get rid of the responsibility for preventing “resistance” actions against Israel.

The organization’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, announced on December 18, 2017 that Hamas would not go back to governing or running the strip. In fact, it was a response to Egypt’s appeals to Hamas to curb the rocket fire on Israel, at which the organization responded that the authorities had been handed over to the national agreement government. In reality, the Hamas military wing decided that the force responsible for preventing such attacks by the rebel opposition organizations (the Salafists and others), would no longer be active.

Another expression of the change in Hamas’ approach is the participation in shooting by Islamic Jihad (the second largest force in the Strip after Hamas), which is under the influence of Tehran and equipped with Iranian weapons. A decisive reason for Hamas’ unwillingness to restrain the firing by Islamic Jihad is apparently its desire to ensure continued Iranian support with money and weapons.

Israel is worried about the establishment of unprecedented relations between Hamas’ military wing and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, especially after the promise made to Yahya Sinwar by Qassem Suleimani, commander of the elite Iranian Quds Force, that the Islamic Republic will aid the terror group with whatever means in their struggle for Jerusalem.

According to Hamas military leaders, their relations with Iran were restored in the summer of 2017 and the Islamic Republic is the largest backer financially and militarily to Hamas’ military wing. The Revolutionary Guards can provide Hamas’ military wing with money, knowledge and military equipment. They can also open new fronts for Hamas against Israel, from southern Lebanon or Syria.

Speaking before a cabinet meeting in September 2017, the director of the Israeli Security Agency (ISA, aka Shin Bet), Nadav Argaman, said that Hamas is ready for renewed conflict with Israel and “continues to deepen its strategic ties with the Shiite axis.” The ISA chief told the cabinet meeting that the relative calm in the West Bank is “fragile,” and noted that a similar situation existed in Gaza.

The ISA chief said that the Strip is characterized by a “deceptive calm”, with security stability alongside an accelerated military buildup, with Hamas having difficulty presenting any political achievement for Gaza or providing any effective solutions to the civilian problems there. Nevertheless, Argaman stressed that Hamas continues to invest considerable resources for the next round of fighting with Israel, “even at the expense of the well-being of the civilians. The movement is already ready for another confrontation with Israel.” As a result, Argaman said, Hamas is deepening its strategic ties with the region’s Shiite axis, led by Iran, and is establishing an outpost in Lebanon.

The social factor

The division between Hamas and Fatah, the siege on Gaza and the stubborn leadership of Hamas have led to catastrophic consequences in the Gaza Strip: high unemployment, increased rates of suicide, shortages of power, water supply, medical supplies, hardships in general wellbeing, higher rates of poverty, increased taxes on necessary goods imposed by Hamas, corruption, distrust between people and institutions and between themselves, higher political repression and arbitrary arrests among Gaza’s activists.

In early September 2015, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development published a report on the situation in Gaza after eight years of blockade and three rounds of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians. The report cautioned that without significant changes, Gaza has no chance of recovery and will become unlivable by 2020.

The sea is also heavily polluted due to both Israeli pollution and being forced to pump waste into the ocean after the sewage systems were bombed. 97% of Gaza’s water is completely undrinkable and Gazans for years now have been putting up with 2-6 hours of electricity per day.

The Palestinian Authority, which took responsibility of the Gaza Strip following the deal signed in October 2017 between Hamas and Fatah, has taken little effort to regenerate the strip. The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has been accused of completely neglecting the 2 million Palestinians suffering in Gaza and Palestinian resistance organizations suggest that armed struggle is their only option.

The blockade has driven Gaza’s economy into collapse. In the second quarter of 2017, unemployment reached 44%. Among women, the rate was 71.5%; in the under 29 age bracket, it was 61.9%. Some 80% of Gaza’s residents depend on humanitarian aid, and about 60% suffer from food insecurity.

Infrastructure and public services in Gaza are in dire condition. 96.2% of the water pumped in the Gaza Strip is contaminated and undrinkable. Electricity is supplied for just a few hours every day, and the shortages affect water and sewage systems as well, which rely on a constant supply of power and barely function without it. The blackouts also keep Gaza residents from leading reasonable lives, in a world where relying on a regular supply of power is a basic right.

The worsening infrastructure crisis is accompanied by a wave of layoffs in the private sector, a significant rise in the number of small and medium traders going bankrupt and severe damage to the liquidity of banks and commercial institutions. Hamas’ own economic hardships are also apparent: the last salary payment to its employees (40 percent of the normal wage), was transferred in October 2017.

In this context, observers noted that among the participants at the protests against the U.S. decision to treat Jerusalem as Israel’s capital there were not only the various factions aiming to a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, but also people with no affiliation, a sign of alienation that makes the political situation more volatile.

Also, the authorities are worried about the growing number of social media posts criticizing both Fatah and Hamas. In Gaza, most complaints are about electricity shortages that date back 11 years, with both groups seen at fault. Slow unity efforts are another issue: some blame Hamas for handing full control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority while others criticize Fatah for retaining salary cuts in Gaza. Fatah is also blamed for the fact that its engagement in peace talks with Israel has brought little progress toward a Palestinian state and for maintaining the old leaders in place.

Conscious of the growing influence of the youth due to their fast-growing numbers, both Hamas and Fatah have tried to convince them to back reconciliation. However, young Palestinians are increasingly beyond reach, put off by a four-year stalemate in peace talks with Israel and little progress toward healing internal rifts. Their growing frustration surfaces in social media criticism of their leaders that is met by with an increasingly authoritarian response.

Consequently, the demographic factor is increasingly seen as one of the main challenges threatening the Gaza Strip government. Many of the young people who acquired an education are hard pressed to find suitable employment, improve their standard of living, or identify any personal and collective horizon. The new generation is using social networks, is aware of Western lifestyles, wants to adopt these lifestyles, and therefore, it defies the sources of authority and is skeptical toward traditional ideology and national goals.

It is just a matter of time, and given recent precedents in the Middle East a sort of Arab Spring is liable to emerge in the Gaza Strip, which might ignite the rage of thousands of young people in a spontaneous protest that could be directed against the Hamas movement.

“The radicalization track” of Gaza’s young generation brings out the possibility of a new entity seizing control over the Gaza Strip. If something is not done that will bring about a genuine change in the Gazans’ bleak perception of reality, a situation may well arise whereby far more extremist entities, even compared to the Hamas movement, might overthrow the government in Gaza.

Changing geopolitics – new approaches of the Palestinian issue

The situation of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian issue are seen as becoming more complex given the geopolitical evolutions in the Middle East, marked by changing priorities, challenges and alliances of the local and regional actors.

At the local level, the Palestinian Authority and Fatah’s leadership in Ramallah are perceived as not being really interested in taking Gaza back from Hamas. Despite the fact that they are willing to negotiate with Hamas, PA’s leadership cannot guarantee positions, diplomatic employees and governmental advantages not only for Hamas, but even for Gazans. In Ramallah and among the Palestinian leadership, no one wants to come close to Gaza. This perception is realized by the appointment of high-level employees only in Ramallah, ignoring Gazans’ needs, and especially by the assignation of funds for municipalities and appointments of high-ranked employees from amongst non-Gazans. This hostility is not directed only toward Hamas but also toward Gaza in general. The needs of Gaza, especially for political and societal reconciliation, are seriously overlooked and the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are less and less seen as one entity, one people and one future-state.

This situation was also a factor that prompted Hamas to seek new sponsors, among which Egypt is seen as becoming the most important.

Egypt: using Gaza to counter Qatar and Turkey

Egypt ruled Gaza from 1948 until 1967. Since that time, Gazans have attended Egypt’s universities and studied Egyptian curricula, creating a strong bond with Egypt over time. The Palestinians have never had armed groups or any conflict with the Egyptian army, compared to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Hamas had a difficult relationship with Cairo since President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ousted Islamist Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and took steps to isolate the Palestinian group, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt then bulldozed the tunnels that Hamas was using to move people and goods under the border, and the Rafah border terminal above ground has been closed to all but a small number of Palestinians seeking to leave Gaza.  Mr. Sisi’s government has also accused the militant group of supporting the Daesh’s Wilayat Sinai that has been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Egyptians.

However, the 2017 agreement between Egypt and Hamas to re-open the Rafa border crossing into Gaza – allowing aid to cross into the impoverished strip and enabling more of its residents to travel – reflects the changing dynamics of the region and follows a move by Egypt and Gulf states to rein in Qatar, the biggest donor to projects in Gaza and a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

According to local sources, Hamas surrendered to Egyptian military demands to completely disengage from the Muslim Brotherhood, to change its political doctrine and to turn over tens of individuals, who had previously enjoyed clemency in Gaza, to Egypt’s intelligence forces.

Hamas is also working with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is vehemently anti-Islamist and, along with Egypt, regards the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The UAE, it seems, wants to increase its influence in Gaza, at the expense of Qatar, which has been isolated by several Arab countries, in part, over its backing of Islamists.

The UAE is set to provide $15m a month worth of funding for health, education, electricity and other services in the strip. The new arrangements would provide relief to Hamas and Gaza’s residents after Mr. Abbas stopped paying for electricity to the strip, slashed salaries for Fatah civil servants and cut back on travel permits for people who need to leave for medical treatment.

An Egypt-sponsored Palestinian president

The Egypt-Hamas deal was brokered by Mohammed Dahlan, a former security chief in Gaza who was ousted after a violent rift erupted between Hamas and Fatah, its Palestinian rival, a decade ago. Mohammed Dahlan, once a Fatah strongman, has been living in exile in the UAE, which has also supported the deal between Cairo and Hamas.

The UAE and Egypt want to have control over the successor to Mahmoud Abbas, the 82-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority and they consider that Mohammed Dahlan could help bring in funds from the UAE and elsewhere.

The rehabilitation of Mohammed Dahlan in an official or semi-official role would represent a blow for Mahmoud Abbas, who has previously accused the former security chief of plotting to overthrow him. Dahlan was expelled from the West Bank in 2011 after the allegations were made. In exile, he financed humanitarian projects in Gaza in a move seen as an attempt to build a base for a future bid for the Palestinian presidency.

While until recently, Mohammed Dahlan was considered to be an enemy of Hamas, local observers pointed out that Hamas leader Yahya Senwar and Dahlan grew up together in the Khan Yunis refugee camp and politically went their separate ways. New common rivals (mainly Abbas) and interests have apparently brought them together in an alliance that has the potential to change the geo-strategic realities between Israel and Palestine.

Palestinians are suspicious about Dahlan, because of his shady history and claims of corruption against him, and because of his rumored relations with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman through a common business ally, the Austrian (ethnic Jew) Martin Schlaff, who reportedly was a former STASI agent in East Germany and was allegedly engaged in less than clean business deals with both.

There are also suspicions that Dahlan is close to officials in Washington. In fact, Dahlan is rapidly emerging as a pivotal figure, promoted by Riyadh and Cairo. According to some reports, Dahlan may even become prime minister of Gaza, with Hamas leaders serving under him.

The “Greater Gaza”: a Palestinian state in Sinai?

In this context, analysts also noted that several politicians and media recently brought again to attention the idea of the so-called “greater Gaza”, a Palestinian state that would consist of the Gaza Strip and some parts of Sinai (but not the West Bank). The long-standing plan, promoted mainly by the Israeli right wing and allegedly supported by the U.S. is based on land in Sinai as a central component of a deal to end the decades old Arab-Israeli conflict.

The plans are reported in Arabic media as part of a “Mossad conspiracy” that involves an “old Zionist plan” to settle Sinai.

The idea of resettling Palestinians in Gaza dates from 1953. When the Strip was under Egyptian administration, the U.S., the Egyptian government and UNRWA agreed to tackle Gaza’s growing population problem by providing 50,000 feddans (210 sq km) in north-western Sinai, where UNRWA could move Palestinians from Gaza and resettle them. Palestinians, who saw the move as favoring the Israeli occupation, rejected the agreement. It was finally withdrawn in 1955, following massive protests.

- According to British declassified official documents[3], over three decades ago the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had agreed to resettle Palestinians in Egypt and stipulated that in return for agreeing to the move, an agreement to end the Arab-Israeli conflict must be reached.

In February 1983, Mubarak had talks with U.S. President Ronald Reagan as well as with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. According to the record of his meeting with Thatcher, in the context of the tense situation in the Middle East, Mubarak sought to convince the U.S. and Israel to accept the establishment of a Palestinian entity in the context of a “confederation” with Jordan, in order to lay the foundations for establishing a future independent Palestinian state. Mubarak said that when he had been asked to accept Palestinians from Lebanon, he told the U.S. he could do so only within the context of a comprehensive plan to resolve the conflict. The Egyptian president expressed his willingness to host Palestinians from Lebanon despite his awareness of the dangers of such a step. He also insisted that, “a Palestinian state will never pose a threat to Israel.”

Mubarak’s political advisor at the time, Osama Al-Baz, presented a proposed future solution, noting that the first step would be a federation between Jordan and a Palestinian state, which would develop into an independent state within 10 to 15 years. Thatcher expressed reservations about the establishment of a Palestinian state independent of Jordan: “Some feel that an independent Palestinian state would be under the influence of the Soviet Union.”

“This is a mistaken idea,” said Al-Baz, “as there will be no Palestinian state under Russian influence. This state will rely economically on the oil-rich Arabs who are very opposed to the establishment of a state loyal to the Soviets in the region. Saudi Arabia, for example, would never allow this to happen.” He also pointed out that a Palestinian state “must” be demilitarized, and therefore would not obtain Soviet weapons.

Mubarak, who was unseated in the 2011 uprising and has remained largely silent since, issued a statement on 29 November 2017 denying the allegations and adding that in 2010 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had proposed a resettlement of Palestinians in Sinai, something Egypt flatly rejected.

- The idea of resettling Palestinians in Sinai was again revived in 2004 when Giora Eiland, Israel’s national security adviser, proposed a plan under which Israel would withdraw from Gaza the following year and Egyptian territory in Sinai would be annexed to Gaza in return for Israel giving Egypt land in the Negev.

- Reports of a Palestinian state being established in the Sinai have also circulated since September 2014. At that time, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi reportedly offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a state in the peninsula, but Abbas rejected the proposal. “If you don’t accept this proposal, your successor will,” El-Sisi purportedly told Abbas in 2014.

- The alleged Egyptian 2014 proposals were evoked in February 2017 by former Israeli minister Aryeh Eldad, who claimed that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi had proposed to Israel the creation of a Palestinian state in Sinai. While Israel officially denied this, the Israeli Communication Minister, Ayoub Qarra, also claimed that El-Sisi had proposed creating a Palestinian state in Gaza and Sinai, saying that this project would see 1,600 square km. of North Sinai being annexed to the Gaza Strip.

- On 10 November 2017, Gila Gamliel, Israel’s minister for social equality, sparked angry reactions among Egyptians and Palestinians when she was quoted saying: “It is appropriate that parts of the Arab countries, such as the Sinai Peninsula, should be considered” for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said Cairo had conveyed its complete rejection of such statements to the Israeli ambassador to Egypt.

- At the beginning of December 2017, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that an Israeli-Palestinian peace – known by the U.S. – might include transferring sections of the Sinai Desert from Egypt to a newly created Palestinian state. According to the paper, Egypt would give up 720 kilometers in the area of Rafah and El Arish, where it links to the Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean Sea, thereby tripling the Gaza territory. The Palestinians, in turn, would allow Israel to keep 12% of the West Bank in Area C. Israel, in turn, would give Egypt land in the Negev in the area of Nahal Paran. Separately, Egypt would be allowed to dig a tunnel linking its territory to Jordan.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi denied rumors that Egypt would cede territory to the Palestinians as part of such a deal: “No one in Egypt can do that. The solution to the Palestinian question will not be at Egypt’s expense,” he said.

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While vehemently denied or contested, such a plan is now seen as having more chances, since it is considered to be backed by the U.S. administration, Hamas is at its weakest point ever, and Israel is increasingly close to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Israel is seen as firmly set on turning Gaza into a Palestinian state, as part of a regional solution that might also see the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, currently in Abbas’ charge, ultimately falling under Jordanian responsibility.

Such a regional solution depends on Egyptian help. The chief difficulty is allaying Egyptian concerns and Israel and the United States can manage it only as part of a dramatic reshaping of the entire Middle East. The plan requires Cairo to accept a compromise of its sovereignty by surrendering territory in Sinai, possibly in a swap for Israeli land in the Negev. It would also undermine long-standing Arab demands that a Palestinian state be created in historic Palestine.

However, the extent of Egypt’s opposition might be different, given that it may be facing stiff pressure from the U.S. administration and the Saudi-led Gulf states to alleviate Gaza’s problems. In what could be seen as a territorial precedent, the Egyptian parliament approved in June 2017 the transfer of two islands, Tiran and Sanafir[4], to Saudi Arabia in return for billions of dollars of investments in Egypt’s ailing economy.

Hamas is almost friendless after Egyptian and Saudi-led moves to sideline Qatar and Turkey’s support. The “Greater Gaza” would mean for Hamas a chance to rule a much more substantial piece of territory, solving the enclave’s humanitarian crisis and rehabilitating the Islamic movement in the eyes of the international community.

Assuming the model is successful, and with Abbas likely to be out of the picture soon, the Sinai plan could be properly unveiled with Dahlan and Hamas maintaining order in a Palestinian state in northern Sinai, sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

All of this could be sold to the world as a supremely humanitarian gesture – to end the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and the region.

New interests and priorities, new peace plans

Historically, the Palestinian issue was the Arab world’s main weapon against Israel and advancing the Palestinian cause allowed the Arab regimes to deflect domestic criticism and unrest and to establish a pan-Arab consensus against what they perceived as an external Zionist enemy threatening the Arab umma. This helped to create unity in the Arab world, where the numerous contradictions among its constituent identities (religious, ethnic, tribal, and so forth) prevented them from rallying around any other issue.

However, in time, the Arab world’s interests changed and some of the main Arab power actors found, if not common goals, significant advantages in cooperating rather than fighting with Israel.

The Arabs and Israel: an increasing number of common priorities

In recent years, a noticeable shift has taken place between Israel and the Sunni Arab world: the scope of common interests between them has widened, and they have found themselves successfully cooperating on a number of strategically important issues, such as security, energy, and the sharing of natural resources.

A significant example is the fact that Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, gave an exclusive interview to Saudi media in November 2017, confirming Israel’s willingness “to exchange information with the moderate Arab nations, including intelligences” and noting that on certain matters, “there is complete agreement between us and Saudi Arabia.”

The most prominent of these shared opportunities lie in the field of security. Israel currently cooperates closely with Egypt and Jordan, among a few others, to protect against fundamentalist elements such as Daesh. In 2013, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi appealed to the Israeli government, so that he could reinforce his troops in the Sinai to fight Daesh, even though doing so exceeded the demilitarization restrictions stipulated by the military annex of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Another example is Egypt’s strategic decision to return the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in 2016. The decision required Israel’s approval and for many years Israel had opposed such a move, but it gave its full support in 2016 after both Egypt and Saudi Arabia committed, under U.S. brokering, to preserve Israel’s free access to the Red Sea through the Straits of Tiran.

Other opportunities are in the economic arena, with the Sunni states’ possibilities of making energy deals and trade pacts with Israel, as well as from boosting foreign investment in each other’s countries. In 2016, for example, Israel signed a $10 billion gas deal with Jordan, under which it will ship 1.6 trillion cubic feet of gas over 15 years from one of its gas fields in the Mediterranean. In November 2017 a delegation representing Israel’s Tamar gas field came to Cairo in order to discuss possible gas imports into Egypt.

The first signs that the Sunni nations were shifting their view of Israel appeared during the Arab Spring in 2011, when voices began calling for the revitalizing of a regional initiative for normalizing relations with Israel. Soon after, Israel began putting out feelers through secret channels to assess Arab willingness to start a conversation on the subject.

Different priorities in the Arab world

The rise of Daesh, the chaos stemming from stateless Libya, and civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, are important new challenges for the Arab states, which can no longer claim that the Palestinian issue is the region’s top priority.

Saudi Arabia embarked in a regional power struggle against Iran for regional hegemony. Egypt is embroiled in a harsh and lengthy war against Daesh in the Sinai and is concerned by the organization’s spread within Libya to the area near its border. In Jordan, the ruling Hashemite regime’s primary challenge is to maintain control of the Kingdom by keeping it stable. Daesh, although weakened, retains a presence in the region and has established sleeper cells within Jordan. The Kingdom must also grapple with over one million refugees from Syria who now account for over 15 percent of the country’s population.

Also, the Arab states are weary of the Palestinians’ inability to resolve their own political infighting. Since 2007, when Fatah and Hamas clashed violently over how to govern the territory, the two political rivals have repeatedly failed to mend their rifts. Their lack of progress, save for the power-sharing agreement that the two signed late last year, has frustrated the countries facilitating the reconciliation attempts, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Even last year’s deal remains in doubt. Many officials within the Sunni Arab states are skeptical about its viability.

Most Arab nations generally regard Hamas as radical and find its positions far too extreme. In the first week of May 2017, just a few days after its release, the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi press responded dismissively to Hamas’ new charter, in which it reaffirmed the militant principles of its organization.

On the other hand, Fatah, particularly its leader Mahmoud Abbas, is also unpopular among the Sunni Arab states, some of which have expressed open and active support for his rivals. In 2016, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE tried to promote reconciliation between Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan, as a first step toward a comprehensive regional process of reconciling Fatah and Hamas and eventually even reaching a settlement with Israel. But Abbas refused to play along, and since then, the four countries, mainly Egypt, began to publicly support Dahlan over Abbas. Dahlan is now considered by both Egypt and the Hamas leadership as a figure who can serve as a bridge between them, and he is therefore the favored successor of Abbas.

The Arab Peace Initiative

The new priorities of the Sunni Arab world were reflected in the so-called Arab Peace Initiative (API), a regional framework for peace, launched in 2002 by Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Crown Prince and later King of Saudi Arabia (2005-2015), in the context following the 9/11 attack[5], when Riyadh needed to get rid of its image as an “exporter of terror” in order to maintain its strategic alliance with the United States, which was critical to its security. At the same time, the wave of Palestinian terror underway since September 2000 incited demonstrations all over the Arab world, upsetting regional stability and the energy market, which is a foundation of the Saudi economy and regime stability. Promoting peace and calming the region, even if only for the sake of appearances, became a Saudi interest.

The API initiative presented Israel with a set of demands: pull back to the pre-Six-Day War lines; withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and Judea and Samaria, including East Jerusalem; find a just and agreed solution to the issue of the refugees; and consent to the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state in the territories from which Israel withdraws (except for the Golan Heights), with its capital in East Jerusalem. If these terms were met, the Arab nations would announce an end to the conflict, sign a comprehensive peace treaty, and for the first time, normalize their relations with Israel for the sake of security, stability, and prosperity for future generations.

The demands were highly problematic for Israel, which rejected the initiative and stressed that it would not accept dictated terms. The Arab countries, for their part, ratified their support for the initiative since it earned them international credit and allowed them to demonstrate their commitment to the Palestinians while keeping their distance from the actual conflict.

The new U.S. Administration’s proposals[6]

The most recent initiative in the process of solving the Palestinian issue, namely the U.S. peace plan, was mentioned in a report presented to the Palestinian Central Council meeting on 14-15 January in Ramallah by Saeb Erekat, Secretary-General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and chief Palestinian negotiator.

According to the report, the U.S. plan included 13 items with the first item recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and providing the transfer of the US embassy to it. According to the report, this means “the end of the issue of Jerusalem”, because no Israeli government will negotiate over Jerusalem after the U.S. administration recognizes it as its capital.

The second item stipulated to establish the Palestinian future capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Media reports speculated in the past that the town of Abu Dis, near Jerusalem, was proposed as capital of the State of Palestine.

The third item says the U.S. administration will approve the annexation of major settlement ‘blocs’ to Israel within two to three months. According to the report, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed to annex 15 per cent of the settlements while the U.S. proposed 10 per cent.

The fourth item stipulates that the U.S. administration will announce a “common security concept for the State of Israel and the State of Palestine as partners in peace”. The concept includes four points: a demilitarized Palestinian state with a strong police force, the creation of bilateral, regional and international security cooperation with the participation of Jordan, Egypt and Washington, which other countries would be welcome to join. The Israeli forces will maintain their presence along the Jordan River and the central mountains of the West Bank, in order to protect the two states. Finally, Israel will continue to enjoy overriding security responsibility for emergency situations.

Erekat pointed out that the fifth item provides that the Israeli forces will withdraw gradually outside Areas A and B in the West Bank and some territories from Area C. Later the Palestinian state will be announced within those borders.

Erekat said that the sixth and seventh clauses stipulate the recognition of Israel as a “national homeland for the Jewish people and a Palestinian state as a national homeland for the Palestinian people”.

The ninth item provides that Israel should allocate parts of the ports of Ashdod and Haifa, and Ben Gurion airport for Palestinian use, while Israel maintains security control over those portals.

Item ten in the plan includes the creation of a safe passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under the sovereignty of Israel.

According to item 11, the Palestinians will manage international crossings however Israel will maintain maximum security control over them.

Article 12 states that “territorial waters, airspace and electromagnetic waves” shall be under Israeli control without prejudicing the needs of the Palestinian state.

Finally, in the thirteenth item, the plan calls for a “just solution to the refugee issue within the Palestinian state”.

A Palestinian proposal

On January 9, during a meeting between senior Palestinian Authority members and two Israeli Knesset members as part of the Geneva initiative, the Palestinians spoke to their counterparts, Knesset members Omer Bar-Lev and Merav Michaeli (Zionist Camp), mentioning that they had received information about the coming U.S. peace program, via communication from the Egyptians and Saudis to Ramallah. The program, as told to the Palestinians, did not include a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, did not include Palestinian sovereignty and did not even mention the issue of Palestinian refugees. In addition, bits of information reached Ramallah on the U.S. intention of turning Ramallah into Palestine’s capital city. High-ranking Palestinians explained to the Israelis that under such circumstances, there was no point to continue with the U.S. mediation.

The Palestinians were asked if they had an alternative plan. According to Bar-Lev and Michaeli, the Palestinians suggested a configuration such as the one used for the negotiations between Iran and the powers. There is no reason not to adopt the “P5+1” configuration (five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as well, they said.

Some obstacles

Notwithstanding the new regional framework, the Palestinian issue still enjoys a special status in the Arab world, being the only that can present at least the appearance of “Arab unity.”

The pragmatic Arab regimes are not keen to be perceived as favorable to normalization before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been resolved. Their citizens would widely and strongly oppose such a move and perceive it as an abandonment and betrayal of their Palestinian brethren. Even Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic relations with Israel and have cooperated quietly but extensively over security and intelligence matters, are careful not to appear too openly conciliatory toward Israel. In this spirit, Jordan’s King Abdullah remarked at the opening of the Arab League summit in March 2017 that there would be no peace or stability in the region without a just and sustainable resolution of the Palestinian issue by way of a two-state solution.

On the other hand, Iran, in its quest for hegemony in the Middle East, might use any sign of rapprochement with Israel to further inflame the Palestinian conflict, to question the legitimacy of the Sunni regimes, to accuse them of abandoning the Palestinians and charge them with committing heresy against Islam by cooperating with Israel. The Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, cannot allow themselves to give Iran or Turkey any openings to amass political capital in the region.

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Indeed, the current geopolitical conditions have created a critical mass of new and overlapping interests, and there is now a historic opportunity to promote a process of normalization. Such an initiative would be complex, but if it were to be launched wisely and fairly, it would benefit the whole region, including the Palestinians.

 

[1] See our previous analysis “The West Bank: statehood or statu quo?”

[2] According to an offer made in February 2017 by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who proposed building a seaport and an airport, as well as industrial zones that would help create 40,000 jobs in the Gaza Strip, if Hamas agreed to demilitarization and to dismantling the tunnels and rocket systems it has built up. The offer was rejected by Hamas which stated its intention to fight with Israel in order to liberate Palestine. See Bassam Tawil: The Offer that Turns the Gaza Strip into Singapore, 21.02.2017, Gatestone Institute, https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/9965/gaza-strip-singapore

 

 

[3]reported in November 2017 by BBC

 

[4] The two islands in the Straits of Tiran originally belonged to the Saudis but were transferred to Egypt in 1950.

[5] When it was revealed that 15 of the 19 terrorists involved in the attacks had been Saudi citizens.

[6] As reported by the Middle East Monitor, see https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180122-palestine-chief-negotiator-reveals-details-of-trump-peace-plan/

 

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