Storm Clouds Linger Over Gaza Despite Talks of a Truce

The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas brokered by Egypt and the UN seems to be holding, as both sides refrain from wide-scale airstrikes and rocket attacks respectively. This has been illustrated by the fact that red alarm rocket sirens, at a rate of around 20 per hour, have not been sounding throughout the regional councils along the Gaza border recently. My phone has also not dropped off the table due to vibrating notifications from the handy ‘Red Alert’ rocket app over the past 21 days either (if you want to use that as a guide). However, there are still a large number of issues surrounding this ceasefire and any future peace deals, and more importantly the question still remains- for how long will this relative peace hold? 

Over the past week, intermittent raids carried out by Palestinian youths on empty IDF outposts along the border have continued, and the Great March of Return, as well as the incessant incendiary kite/balloon attacks don’t seem to be going anywhere soon either – causing over 30 fires in southern Israel in the past 48 hours alone. These incidents, although now much the norm, have the potential to break-apart the already fragile ceasefire (particularly the threat from incendiary balloons). If by chance one of these balloons happens to land on a school or college- as one nearly did recently at the Sapir Academic College, and it starts a fire that leads to injury (or god forbid worse) among vulnerable students, then an escalation on the border will undoubtedly occur. The IDF strikes that may follow and Hamas’ response via its shiny new ‘strike-for-strike’ policy have all the ingredients to make a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip almost inevitable.

The recent news of Israel banning all imports of fuel and gas through the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza (from August 2nd onwards) due to ongoing incendiary attacks, will only further fuel tensions with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. It is also worthy to note that many of these other militant groups: Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), act under the orders of IRGC command and control, meaning the influence of Hamas over these groups decisions is rather limited. The threat of a rocket barrage from one of these smaller factions is currently higher than the risk of a strike from Hamas itself and this threat may persist for the foreseeable future unless something significant occurs within the next few weeks.

Last week, Hamas leaders living abroad travelled to the Gaza Strip and held meetings with other militant factions to discuss a possible long-term humanitarian ceasefire with Israel, brokered by the UN and Egypt. This has been condemned by other Palestinian factions, with the PLO stating that this truce would be seen in the context of US President Trump’s upcoming peace plan for the Middle East, a plan which Hamas vehemently rejects. This conflict within the ranks of militant groups may lead to heightened tensions within the strip and may end up impacting the long-term success of any deal with Israel.

On Sunday the Israeli Security Cabinet convened to discuss the UN humanitarian ceasefire deal and how to go about further negotiations on this deal with Hamas, but came to no definitive decision, with the deal being presented but not fully analysed. The IDF reportedly told the cabinet that the military was ready for every scenario in Gaza. Conflicting information emerged from the meeting, with some officials purportedly stating the success of a ceasefire would be slim, while others stated that Israel was moving closer to a ceasefire deal with Hamas. On Monday sources in Gaza informed local media that the Hamas political wing had held meeting with the armed wing (Al-Qassam Brigades) to check the readiness of its fighters in the event of any upcoming conflict with Israel. Furthermore, yesterdays images from Netivot of mobile bomb shelters moving into position do not stoke enthusiasm as to the success of these talks, but  could also be taken simply as a precautionary measure. That said, after todays strike that killed at least 2 Hamas members on a border outpost in Gaza, precaution is now even more of a necessity in southern Israel.

Additionally, the ongoing reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah seem to have repeatedly met numerous brick walls, only to overcome these and then just days later find themselves at another political impasse blocking any possible deal between the two factions. The latest issue surrounded Hamas accusing Fatah of trying to foil any truce with Israel. Hamas charged Fatah with wanting the siege on Gaza continue and no deal to be reached. Despite this, talks between the two sides (with the help of Egyptian mediation) seem to continue on in Cairo for now.

The past 2 months has been a rocky period for Gaza to say the least. As we delve deeper into talks between the two opposing sides it seems the margin for error increases relative to the complexity of demands. It will be important in these days, weeks, and even months ahead to keep an eye not only on local military movements, but also on the participation at the Great March of Return each Friday, as well as the incendiary attacks, the frequency of which may point us to what the future may hold. One of Isreal’s main demands was the cessation of both of these activities for any truce to work effectively.

In the end it comes down two choices- war or peace. The lines between these two options have often blurred together in Gaza, leaving the the element of surprise always open. I wouldn’t place my bets on anything yet, the unpredictable nature of the Middle East seems forever present.