Aiming Low: Hamas’ Confrontation with Israel
MON correspondent Guy Cohen looks at what lies behind the ‘new’ word being used to describe the recently achieved understanding between Israel and Hamas.
The history of the confrontations between Israel and Hamas is long and complex, but our experience in describing them is largely confined to two local concepts: Hudna, a word used in Islamic jurisprudence to describe a unilateral truce; and Tahadyia, a de-facto calm in Arabic. 2019 brought with it a new version: Hasdara, a settlement in Hebrew, a concept that morphs a lull into a broader frame of understanding between the two actors: coexistence. Why the transformation?
Hasdara derives from ‘Hesder’, an arrangement or a settlement for dispute settlement. It is neither a ceasefire nor a truce, or even peace. It is mostly used in Hebrew for out of court and/or marriage settlements, sometimes being extended to include regulations such as cannabis policies, before it became a politicised description for de facto management of a political-economic arrangement.
The indirect talks between Israel and Hamas have been ongoing since October 2018, with verbal mutual understanding. Negotiations on operative measures are mediated through Egypt, Qatar and the UN. The understandings include Israeli humanitarian policies to improve the economic situation in Gaza, particularly the renewal of fuel supply and expansion of the fishing zone to 15 nmi off Gaza’s shore. For its part, Hamas has committed to keep the militant group Islamic Jihad in check, and to ensure demonstrations along the border are non-violent in character.
Hasdara is the whole set of these conditions to achieve an extended calm, and is intended to be implemented in two phases. In order to enable UN and Arab entities to bring medical teams and facilities to Gaza, there is a need to ease relevant bureaucratic restrictions and entry permits for medical treatment in Israel; or allowing Qatar to transfer money, and renovate critical infrastructure, or increase the movement of goods in the crossings between Israel and Gaza.
As a bureaucratic alignment arrangement, Hasdara makes sense to both parties; for Israel, because it de-escalates the violence along its southern border amid consecutive election campaigns; for Hamas, because it stabilises the humanitarian and economic situation in Gaza, enabling the organisation to stave off local criticism and govern more like a political authority rather than merely a para-military group.
Throughout the process, both parties have sustained acts of inconsequentiality, of attrition and brinkmanship, entangling cause and effect. One such act saw Israeli Defence Force personnel shoot a Hamas activist, mistaking him for an armed militant. He turned out to be a member of a special unit responsible for securing a better understanding with Israel. In this case, Israel and Hamas skipped mediation to prevent escalation.
Yet one of the most interesting things about the Hasdara is how Hamas, an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood, approached Egypt (which outlawed the group) to mediate, rather than the UN in April this year. Is it not better to have a supposedly neutral mediator, such as the UN rather than a regional power which controls the border?
From Hamas’ perspective, Egyptian Intelligence proved more effective than the UN during the mini-escalations. More importantly, Egypt controls the Rafah crossing and can reopen it should Hamas uphold its commitment to the Hasdara. For its part, Egypt has a vested interest in having a direct line to Hamas, to prevent a spillover from Gaza into the Sinai, where its military is fighting ISIS.
Both parties seem to have concluded that previous international (western) mediation efforts, which have outlined and prioritised contractual ceasefires with humanitarian provisions, timeframe and monitoring mechanisms, have proved futile at best, and have exasperated the situation at worst. In effect, this means Hasdara is the child of a series of mutual local political improvisations. Its very raison d’etre – sequence, calculation and leverages – is improvisational.
In other words, local customs will tend to ‘dewesternise’ future arrangements. What was farsighted in yesteryears is now reluctantly adjusted to encompass current ground; which makes Hasdara not very much more than a veneer.
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