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Night Moves: Israel & Hamas Inching Towards Deal?

The Israeli withdrawal from northern Gaza was both sudden and unexpected over the weekend, taking many quite by surprise. Israel had already withdrawn many troops from the southern areas of Gaza and poised them just across the southeastern border of the Gaza Strip, sending them instead on individual operations only to return back to the base camps on the Israeli side. But, after the stated Israeli purpose of the northern Gaza incursion was to establish a buffer and push back the launch points of the Qassam rockets beyond reach of Ashkelon, the sudden withdrawal was perplexing.

Perhaps beginning to explain the move, it coincided with a Hamas’ Gaza-based Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s call for a mutual cease-fire with Israel shortly after the withdrawal of troops and armor. The Gaza-based Haniyeh made this call amid a Palestinian public opinion where 77% of Palestinians support Shalit’s abduction while only 23% oppose it, according to a recent al-Jazeera poll.

Several other things are significant to note about Haniyeh’s cease-fire proposal. First, himself in the battle zone, the elected Hamas leadership – many of them already apprehended by the IDF – wants an end to the Israeli operations and a return to the relative normalcy that is life in the Gaza Strip. Secondly, the timing of the cease-fire proposal is curious, which initially may have suggested that the two sides had back-channel communication and that the Israeli withdrawal along with Haniyeh’s call for a cease-fire were previously agreed-to arrangements. Israel, presumably, would be able to reduce the international condemnations while Hamas and the Palestinians would be able to catch their collective breaths.

But the most significant aspect of Haniyeh’s call for a cease-fire is clearly geographic. He is in Gaza while the real leadership of Hamas and the source of direction that the armed terrorists follow emanates from the Hamas politburo headquarters in Damascus, Syria. Haniyeh and the whole of Hamas’ elected leadership have been bypassed and disregarded, fully out of the Hamas operational loop. Why else would even Fatah’s Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas send Taysir Khaled and Abdullah Hurani to Damascus to hold talks with Khaled Meshaal if Meshaal were not calling the operational shots and hold control over the fate of the abducted Gilad Shalit?

Publicly, the withdrawing Israelis quickly rejected Haniyeh’s call for a cease-fire, indicating that they, too, had sidelined him as powerless and without effective authority. But a report from London’s Arabic language al-Hayat newspaper said that indeed a deal had been struck between Israel and Hamas, but the Syrian-based terrorist group’s headquarters, not the ineffectual Haniyeh. Israel is likely waiting for word from Meshaal, not Haniyeh.

However, a fresh report from Haaretz indicates that Meshaal has indeed agreed to an arrangement that would include “an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and an end to targeted killings, in return for a long-term cease-fire on the part of the Palestinians that would include an end to the Qassam rockets.”

While Meshaal complains that “there is no one on the Israeli side willing to hear their proposals,” simply observing the timing of events and statements from both sides, most importantly the unexpected Israeli withdrawal from the northern part of Gaza, indicates that there is clearly communication, be it direct or indirect, front door or back-channel.

Presuming that this is likely the framework of any agreement between the two sides, the rhetorical question is clearly, “How long will it last?”

The IDF has exchanged prisoners in the past and would also likely honor a call for the end of terrorist assassinations if agreed to. Hamas would surely release Shalit and likely also attempt to enforce a no-Qassam-strike policy. But for how long could this be enforced? How long would it take for another group – or even Hamas – to justify lobbing more Qassams into Sderot or Ashkelon, effectively shredding the agreement as the IDF returns to targeting attackers?

They are indeed rhetorical questions, especially in light of the fact that there is no Israeli acceptance as yet of Meshaal’s nod.