What prompted Israel to negotiate with Hamas?

What prompted Israel to negotiate with Hamas?

For more than a month, the Palestinian territories have been immersed in shuttle diplomacy lead by the head of Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kaamil, and U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov.

The two envoys have made a handful of visits and held meetings with Hamas leaders and Israeli officials in the Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv, respectively. Moreover, the Egyptian capital has been hosting intense meetings for the Palestinian resistance factions, reportedly to discuss the prospects of a cease-fire deal with Israel.

According to Israeli media outlet leaks, mostly Haaretz, the two sides – Hamas and Israel – are about to conclude their Egypt-brokered talks by reaching a five-year truce, within which Israel will gradually lift the 11-year blockade on the Gaza Strip and allow a seaport to link the coastal enclave with Cyprus in exchange for halting the flaming kites being sent from the Gaza Strip toward southern Israel and suspending the construction of underground tunnels Hamas' military wing first started using during the 2014 Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip.

Since the end of that 50-day war, a de facto truce was applied in the Gaza Strip, with sporadic rounds of escalation caused usually by the Israeli side, who exploited the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza and Palestine's preference to not engage in a destructive war.

So, the question is: What prompted Israel to accept indirect talks with Hamas after nearly four years of relative peace on the border? Was it the weekly protests, known as the Great Return March, being held in the area near the Israeli security fence since March 30?

Though perhaps not the only reason, the march seems to have turned the tide for talks, pushing Israel to negotiate to improve the situation in the blockaded Gaza Strip. For the 21st week in a row, Gazans have been taking part in peaceful demonstrations, in which around 170 people have been killed and thousands of others injured.

Following the 11 years of blockades, the Israelis had expected to see protests launched against Hamas, a prediction repeated by Israeli officials, most recently, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who called on the Palestinian people to launch an Arab Spring-like protest against Hamas rule.

The Great Return March and its impact have drawn the world's attention to the daily suffering of Gazans and inspired international headlines focused on the Palestinian plight. This, in turn, complicates the situation for Israeli policymakers, who have admitted on several occasions that they have lost the media war to the Palestinians. The effective impact of the weekly marches is clear. Israel has made it a point to insist on their conclusion in the upcoming cease-fire deal, according to leaked information from the Cairo-based talks.

The second reason why Israel returned to the negotiation table was to take advantage of the failure of the Palestinian internal reconciliation process and to deepen the division between Palestinian rivals. By only negotiating with the Gaza-based Palestinian resistance movements, who oppose the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israel would succeed in disconnecting the Gaza Strip from the other occupied Palestinian territories, mostly Jerusalem; hence, pave the way for Israel to continue its expansionist and annexation policies in the West Bank by building new settlements. In this case, only Palestinians, who have been battling on a non-sovereign government for more than 11 years, are to blame – more specifically, the Ramallah-based government which imposed further sanctions on the Gazan people, worsening the already miserable situation.

The third reason is related to the relative calm in the Syrian conflict. This could be for two reasons. First, Israel knows that the calm in the region makes it more difficult to launch a destructive attack against the Gaza Strip, like what happened in the summer of 2014, because international media and world opinion, without the Syrian crisis to focus on, would turn its attention to Israel's inevitable atrocities. Second, the somewhat-stable Syrian crisis, for Israel, means that the danger of the Iranian presence in Syria will increase, requiring more Israeli focus on the northern military front comprised of Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and Iran. By agreeing to negotiate with Hamas now, Israel has decided to neutralize Gaza's southern military front to focus more on the north, particularly after Iranian officials threatened to respond to the new U.S. economic sanctions on Tehran.

* Researcher in Middle East affairs

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