Still bargaining

Last week saw the six-month old truce between Hamas in Gaza and Israel expire. The ceasefire, however, had already been interrupted when Israeli troops entered Gaza on November 4, sparking a series of violent exchanges and prompting Israel to almost completely seal the Gaza crossings. Nevertheless, it was still the longest lasting truce in eight years and the recent escalation, which is likely to continue in the next weeks, is both parties’ idea of bargaining over an improved extension.

Hamas needs to ensure regularity in the supply of basic goods coming through the crossings into Gaza. For a year-and-a-half, Israel has imposed a draconian closure on Gaza’s 1.5 million people, and while Hamas had used the truce to consolidate its control over Gaza and end some of its unfinished business with Fateh in the shape of the Hilles and Dughmoush families, the situation could not go on. Indeed, a spokesperson from Hamas recently decried the just-ended ceasefire as a "security for food agreement". Hamas will need assurances that the crossings will remain open should any future ceasefire be agreed.

Hamas has been sending two kinds of messages. On the one hand, field commanders have been encouraged to declare their intention to resume fighting and some political leaders, especially outside Gaza, have been saying the same. On the other, political leaders in Gaza are leaving the door to a renewed truce open. Perhaps significantly, during the recent celebrations for Hamas’ anniversary, some top leaders swore the oath of the Muslim Brotherhood in front of around 200,000 followers. This was unprecedented in the history of the movement and was interpreted in two ways by local analysts. It could be a signal that Hamas is ready to take the more moderate and pragmatic approach that the Muslim Brotherhood is known for, or it can be interpreted as a plea for help from the movement that spawned Hamas but has been critical of some of its more extreme and adventurous positions and behaviors.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, also benefited from the truce, particularly by being relieved of politically damaging protests from southern residents. Nevertheless, Israel wants to improve the terms of any renewed truce, not least in trying to force Hamas back to negotiations over a prisoner exchange for the captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Moreover, Israel is uncomfortable with the dramatic increase in smuggling under the Gaza-Egypt border. The smuggling has been encouraged and enabled by Hamas as a response to Israel’s closure on Gaza’s crossings. Nevertheless, this is another issue Israel will want to address in any future deal.

The upcoming Israeli elections are another factor strongly influencing the behavior of the two parties. The different Israeli political leaders are using the Gaza escalation as a way to ensure that in front of voters they look tough on Hamas and are seen to act to end rocket fire and make progress in bringing Shalit home. At the same time, those political leaders in government know that if they overplay their hand, it could backfire. Hamas too understands that while an Israeli government can be violently dangerous around election time, it is also vulnerable, and the normally harmless rocket and mortar fire will be magnified enormously under the lens of elections.

Israel and Hamas, in other words, have their separate interests in renewing a truce agreement but also the shared objective of maintaining the division between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That division ensures Hamas control over the only bit of Palestinian territory not completely under Israeli control. It also allows Israel to unilaterally determine the future of the West Bank, especially East Jerusalem, by accelerating its settlement project there and frees the country from international pressure.

Hence, and even if the current round of escalation might continue for some time, particularly during the Israeli election campaign, the two sides will likely forge a new agreement in the not too distant future.