Why Israel and Hamas are suddenly on the same side
When Israel and Hamas engage in public it is usually to exchange insults, accusations, threats, or even physical attacks in attempts to inflict maximum mutual harm. It therefore came as somewhat of a surprise when the two sides struck a more conciliatory tone of readiness to engage in prisoner exchange and provide humanitarian assistance to the stricken Gaza Strip. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a call through his office at the beginning of the month for the immediate resumption of talks, through international mediators, to conclude a prisoner swap, with Hamas hopeful of recovering its “war dead and missing soldiers,” and thus conclude this tragic saga.
It is not often that the interests of Israel and Hamas align so closely, but at the moment both sides seem keen to at least negotiate, motivated partly by a period of quiet along their border, but even more so by the havoc threatened by the coronavirus. In the coincidental intersection between the pandemic and both sides’ commitment to their people in captivity lies an opportunity to strike a deal that would include an exchange of prisoners and the supply of humanitarian aid to Gaza, which is an Israeli interest as much as a Palestinian one.
Rumours about an exchange of prisoners have circulated regularly over the years. Hamas possesses the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, Israeli soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and has held captive (or at least knows the fate of) Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed, Israeli citizens who crossed into Gaza of their own volition and are believed to be alive. But the pandemic has provided an incentive to advance negotiations that have been on the back burner.
In the unorthodox style of communication between the two, what might appear as readiness for a deal was prompted by a provocative statement at the beginning of the month by Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who warned Israel that if more ventilators for coronavirus patients were not supplied to the besieged Palestinian enclave, then Hamas would “take them by force from Israel and stop the breathing of 6 million Israelis.” However, in the same breath, Sinwar, himself one of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners freed by Israel in 2011 as part of a deal to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, declared that Hamas was ready “to make partial concessions on our prisoners’ issue in exchange for Israel’s release of elderly prisoners, patients and prisoners as a humanitarian gesture in light of the coronavirus crisis.”
Israel’s decision makers took both the threat and the opening for negotiations seriously. Sinwar’s message was an undoubtedly genuine expression of concern, not only for the wellbeing of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails, but also that the more vulnerable of them coming to harm without his government doing enough to release them could bring political repercussions for the Hamas leadership from their own countrymen. Hamas is also aware of Israel’s sensitivity over the return of its captive citizens, and especially the remains of the two fallen soldiers. It is a long tradition embedded in the ethos of Israeli society to spare no effort to secure the release of its prisoners of war, or those taken hostage; this is to a certain extent a sign of strength, but also exposes its vulnerability in negotiating, which usually increases the price of bringing them back.
It is not often that the interests of Israel and Hamas align so closely, but at the moment both sides seem keen to at least negotiate motivitated by a period of quiet... even more so by the havoc threatened by the coronavirus.
In this case, however, it is not only the return of its citizens and fallen soldiers that is in Israel’s interest. It also wants to avoid the death of Hamas prisoners, which could ignite unrest among other Palestinian prisoners and also those in the Gaza Strip. Similarly, avoiding a pandemic catastrophe in Gaza, with its high population density, lack of sanitation and hygiene, and crippled health system, is a vital Israeli concern. And the proximity of Gaza means that an uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus there would affect Israel, not only health-wise but politically too. After 13 years of a punitive blockade that has left the health and well-being of this small enclave in a fragile state, while the responsibility would not lie solely with Israel, it must shoulder much of it.
Some in Israel argue against the high price of releasing 250 Hamas prisoners, some with blood on their hands, as demanded by Hamas. Much of this criticism derives from past experience of released prisoners returning to militancy and killing innocent people. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of past prisoner exchange deals, the current situation is different. There is an opportunity, presented by the tragic circumstances of a pandemic, for these two sworn enemies not only to show some humanity, but also to demonstrate some political astuteness in averting a humanitarian disaster for which both sides would be held responsible.
It is rare that a win-win situation presents itself to Israel and Hamas, in which the benefits for both outweigh the costs. Equally important, a deal that may save many lives and bring loved ones back to their families, even in the case of the two Israeli soldiers only for them to have a proper burial and their families a grave to grieve at, is bound to leave a legacy of ability on both sides to overcome their deeply ingrained mutual hatred and distrust. This will stand them in good stead when addressing longer-term and more fundamental disagreements through diplomatic negotiations rather than bloodshed.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg