UAE deal shows Arab-Israel conflict starting to come apart before our eyes

Israel finds itself in a place of honor in the moderate Sunni camp against the extremist Shiites; there are even signs of a certain shift in Hamas

Avi Issacharoff
Palestinian fishermen, mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, prepare their fishnets along a beach off the Mediterranean Sea in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on September 2, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Palestinian fishermen, mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, prepare their fishnets along a beach off the Mediterranean Sea in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on September 2, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The historic agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is a direct continuation of the profound changes in the Middle East that have been quietly taking place in recent years. The Israeli-Arab conflict is starting to come apart before our very eyes, and Israel finds itself in a place of honor in the moderate Sunni camp against the extremist Shiites.

Located between these two groups are several sub-groups, including the Palestinian Authority and the Muslim Brotherhood (Qatar, Turkey, Hamas). The PA is sometimes backed by the moderate Sunni camp, especially by the countries bordering Israel (Jordan and Egypt), although sometimes they, too, lose interest.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, Turkey still maintains diplomatic relations with Israel; Qatar is officially mediating between Israel and Hamas – with its representative, Mohamed al-Emadi, meeting openly with Israeli security agency and IDF personnel; and even Hamas may no longer be quite what it used to be.

The most prominent symbol of this apparent, tentative Hamas shift — from terrorist group to governing authority that sometimes takes up the “mantle of terror” — is its all-powerful leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar.

The head of Israel’s National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat (2nd-R), wearing a protective mask, makes his way to board the plane as he prepares to leave Abu Dhabi on September 1, 2020, at the end of an unprecedented visit on normalizing Israel-UAE relations. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)

Sinwar, who took over in Gaza when Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh left the Strip, is in no hurry right now to further escalate hostilities with Israel. He is a classic example of the cliché, “The things that you see from here you don’t see from there.” This is confirmed by the mini-escalation we have witnessed on the Gaza-Israel front in recent weeks — the balloon bombs, the dribble of rockets towards Israel. These were not simply an expression of anti-Jewish sentiment. They were intended to achieve very specific aims: Maintain Qatari funding to the Strip, renew several stalled infrastructure projects within Gaza (electricity lines; an industrial zone), and obtain help battling COVID-19.

An Emirati official stands near an El Al plane that carried a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalization accord, upon its arrival at the Abu Dhabi airport, in the first-ever direct flight from Israel to the UAE, on August 31, 2020. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP)

Sinwar, who likes to show off his mastery of Hebrew and his understanding of Israeli politics, viewed the escalation on the northern border with Hezbollah as a potential opportunity to gain some achievements down south. However, the massive explosion in Beirut’s port, which at the very least delayed Hezbollah’s planned revenge against Israel for the killing of one of its fighters, left Israel with only the southern border to worry about. And then the virus complicated matters further for Gaza’s rulers.

Up until recently Gaza was about the safest place in the world as regards COVID-19. But lately there has been a real outbreak, albeit in numbers that Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu would love to contend with. Sinwar realized the enormity of the problem and pushed for a quick ceasefire. As soon as Qatar renewed its promise to provide a reported $27 million in monthly funding, plus a few million here and there for fuel and various projects, Sinwar deescalated hostilities with Israel, and focused on locking down Gaza’s two million people to stop the COVID contagion.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar (4th L) takes part in a rally as Palestinians call for a “Day of Rage” to protest Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in Gaza City on July 1, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

If there is something the populace cannot tolerate at this point it is another war — not when they have already reached rock bottom financially and a pandemic has arrived. And that relative sensitivity to the residents of Gaza is noteworthy. Hamas is emphatically his top priority, but Sinwar attaches importance to public sentiment — in striking contradiction to his northern neighbor Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who could not care less about the non-Shiite population of Lebanon.

And so Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again agreed to a ceasefire that includes cash transfers to hard-up families in Gaza and paychecks to Hamas clerks, bolstering Hamas as ruler of Gaza. Again, just to make it clear: The government of Israel is helping Hamas retain power. Why? Because Israel clearly understands that the alternative — war and the disintegration of Hamas — is worse. In other words, Israel is willing to pay protection money — or at least have Qatar pay — to help Gaza with COVID-19 in exchange for a quiet border.

A Palestinian policeman waves on a truck s it enters through the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip on September 1, 2020, after a Qatari-mediated deal with Israel. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Where did it start?

Word on the Gazan street is that the COVID outbreak began with a mother from Al-Maghazi refugee camp in the center of the Strip who wanted to take her baby for medical treatment at the Al-Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem. She arrived at the Erez Crossing (according to the rumor) and had to turn back as she lacked the necessary paperwork. When she returned to Hamas’s Four-Four crossing, she was asked if she had been to the Israeli side and she said no.

Four days later she set out once again, this time with the proper permits, and reached Al-Makassed hospital. Except that once there, it was discovered that she had contracted COVID-19. The doctors updated the PA’s Ministry of Health in Ramallah, who updated their counterparts in Gaza. A medical team was sent to the family’s home in Al-Maghazi to test her family members. Her father-in-law, who owns a small supermarket, turned out to be infected. From there it was just a short jump to a wider outbreak. By last Wednesday morning, 480 people were infected in one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

“Initially, they declared a 48-hour lockdown,” A., a resident of Gaza, told me. “After a break for supplies, they then declared a 72-hour lockdown. And then another 48 hours. You can leave to buy groceries or medicine and there are donkey-driven carts selling fruits and vegetables. But there are very few drivers on the roads and almost no one on the streets. All public places are closed. Hamas is also stopping traffic between areas and the entire Strip has been divided into zones with no traffic allowed between them,” said A.

A mask-clad Palestinian stallholder arranges produce on a street in Gaza City on September 3, 2020, amidst a COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic-imposed lockdown. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“For instance, it is forbidden to drive from Khan Younis to [nearby] El-Kerara, or between Deir al-Balah and the [refugee] camps in the center. Gaza City has been divided into sections — Tuffah, Daraj, Shati, etc. — and each is isolated from the others. This outbreak came at a very bad time as far as the people of Gaza are concerned, because it coincided with the escalation with Israel which resulted in 16-hour electric outages, bombings, and a ban on fishing. People’s fear of the disease only increased with the threat of war.

“The agreement between Qatar, Hamas, and Israel may have calmed people’s concerns a little, but only a little,” A. went on. “Everything is still so unstable. There is a sense that the disease is under control, but God forbid that it gets out of hand.”

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