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Regional Players Make Moves on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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Gaza Strip, Palestinian Territories © Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock

August 27, 2018 16:10 EDT

Regional players in the Middle East are looking for the next Palestinian leader in a bid to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A possible long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is proving to be much more than an effort to end escalating violence that threatens to spark yet another war in the Middle East.

Moves by Egypt and the United Nations to mediate an agreement are not only about preventing protests along the Gaza-Israel border — as well as repeated rocket fire on Israel that provoke Israeli military strikes in response — from spinning out of control. They also constitute Israeli-backed efforts to politically, economically and militarily weaken Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip. The aim is for the possible return of Mohammed Dahlan, the Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief, who is seen as a successor to the ailing Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Ironically, Israeli discussions with representatives of Qatar constitute recognition of Doha’s long-standing relations with Islamists and militants, which the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain cited as the reason for their boycott of the Gulf state in June 2017.

Israel and Egypt have agreed that Qatar would pay the salaries of tens of thousands of government employees in Gaza. Abbas has refused to pay the workers as part of an Israeli-Emirati-Saudi-backed effort to undermine Hamas’ control of Gaza and give the PA a key role in the Strip’s administration. In response to a request from Abbas, Israel has reduced electricity supplies, leaving Gazans with only three to four hours of power a day. Qatar has also been negotiating the return by Hamas of two Israeli nationals held captive, as well as the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014 in Gaza.

Abbas’ economic warfare was the latest tightening of the noose in a more than a decade-long Israeli-Egyptian effort to strangle Gaza economically. Included in the moves to negotiate a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas are proposals for significant steps to ease the blockade of Gaza, which has been in place since 2007.

In a statement on Facebook, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel’s goal was to “remove the Hamas terror group from power, or force it to change its approach, i.e., recognize Israel’s right to exist and accept the principle of rebuilding in exchange for demilitarization.” Lieberman said he wanted to achieve that by “creating conditions in which the average resident of Gaza will take steps to replace the Hamas regime with a more pragmatic government,” rather than through military force.

Ironically, involving Qatar in the effort to prevent violence in Gaza from getting out of hand gives it a foot in the door. This comes as the UAE seeks to put a Palestinian leader in place who is more attuned to Emirati and Saudi willingness to accommodate the Trump administration’s controversial efforts to negotiate an overall peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Speaking in a series of interviews, Qatari Ambassador to the Palestinian Territories Mohammed al-Emadi insisted that “it is very difficult to fund the reconstruction of Gaza in an event of yet another destructive war.” He said he had “discussed a maximum of five- to 10-year cease-fire with Hamas.”

Abbas, like Hamas, has rejected US mediation following US President Donald Trump’s recognition earlier this year of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. On August 21, Trump shocked Israelis and Palestinians by saying that Israel would pay a “higher price” for his recognition of Jerusalem and that Palestinians would “get something very good” in return “because it’s their turn next.” The president gave no indication of what he meant.

Ceasefire and a New Leader

The effort to negotiate a lasting ceasefire is the latest round in a failed Emirati-Egyptian bid to return Dahlan to Palestine as part of a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement. Dahlan frequently does UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s bidding.

During an internecine Palestinian power struggle in 2007, US President George W. Bush described Dahlan as “our guy.” Dahlan is also believed to have close ties to Lieberman.

Since late March, Hamas has backed weekly mass protests by Gazans demanding the right to return to homes in Israel proper, which they lost with the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and in the 1967 war, in an effort to force an end to the blockade. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said last week that, “thanks to these marches and resistance,” an end to Israel’s decade-long blockade of Gaza was “around the corner.” Some 170 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and 18,000 others wounded in Israel’s hard-handed response to the protests, designed to prevent demonstrators from breeching the fence that divides Gaza from Israel.

Ironically, Abbas may prove to be the loser as Israel and Hamas inch toward a long-term ceasefire that could ultimately give Dahlan a role in administering the Gaza Strip.

“Gaza has become a de facto state as it comprises a set area with a central body that governs the population, has an army and conducts foreign policy. So, in a way, countries have to be pragmatic and negotiate with Hamas. Israel’s main interest is security—a period of complete calm in Gaza—and it is willing to do what is necessary to achieve this,” said Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council.

“Until recently, Cairo insisted that Abbas re-assume control over Gaza, which Hamas would not accept, specifically the call for it to disarm. Now, Egypt understands that this is not realistic and is only demanding that Hamas prevent [the Islamic State’s affiliate] in the Sinai from smuggling in weaponry. The only party that is unhappy with this arrangement is Abbas. who has been left behind. But this is his problem,” Eiland added.

A ceasefire between Hamas and Israel and the possible return of Dahlan are likely to be the first steps in a strategy to engineer the emergence of a Palestinian leadership more amenable to negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a geopolitical environment that favors Israel.

Whether Trump’s remark that Israel would have to pay a price for his recognition of Jerusalem was a shot from the hip or part of a broader strategy is hard to discern. The White House has since sought to roll back Trump’s remarks. With the jury still out, Israelis, Palestinians and their regional allies have, nonetheless, been put on alert as they maneuver to ensure their place in whatever emerges from efforts to reengineer the political landscape.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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