Israel Pulse

As hunger strike ends, Gaza arrangement proceeds

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Article Summary
Now that the Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike has ended, safely reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can move forward with an arrangement with Hamas.

The Hamas prisoner hunger strike came to an end April 15, and each side can view the agreement as an achievement. Israel agreed to install public phones in the prisons. The phone conversations will be monitored, thus allowing the prisoners to talk to family members, while maintaining the cell-phone jamming that prevents the use of phones smuggled into the prisons.

It all began in January with the controversial decision of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to clamp down on high-security prisoners. A pilot program began one month later in two prisons, Ketziot and Ramon, to jam cellular signals. The Shin Bet did not oppose the very logical step to prevent the prisoners from using smuggled cell phones, but felt that the timing was off: Israel was in the throes of an election campaign and also trying to reach an arrangement in Gaza. Members of Israel’s security system felt that while the minister’s actions were perhaps warranted, they were unwise at that point in time: Smuggled cell phones did not constitute a security threat to the State of Israel. The Shin Bet will never acknowledge it publicly, but we can assume that most of the cell phones smuggled into prisons are known to the security system. (There are evidently only several dozen of them.) The phones remained the only option for prisoners to maintain contact with family members after Israel stopped all family visits from Gaza to the prisons.

While trying to end the hunger strike, Israel held indirect negotiations with the perpetrators of the cruelest and most appalling terror attacks carried out in the country. For instance, Israel negotiated indirectly with Mohammed Arman, sentenced to 36 life terms for his part in planning a long list of attacks in Israel. Arman also heads the prisoner leadership.

Head of Hamas' political bureau Ismail Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza April 16 that he maintains direct communication with another Hamas prisoner leader, Abbas al-Sayyid. Sayyid planned the infamous terrorist attack in the Park Hotel in Netanya , one of harshest attacks in Israel during the second intifada that led the Israel Defense Forces to conduct the Defensive Shield operation in the West Bank. Haniyeh revealed that UN emissary to the Middle East Nikolay Mladenov was in the room while he spoke with Sayyid. Israel intercepted the conversation and promptly send prisoner Sayyid to solitary confinement.

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Haniyeh added an interesting detail when he revealed that the agreement that emerged was a package deal connected to an arrangement in Gaza that is slated to be implemented in the very near future. According to Haniyeh, if Israel had not acceded to the prisoners’ demands, the whole agreement would have blown up. Thus, the prison leaders and the wider Palestinian leadership feel that the hunger strike had its intended effect, forcing Israel to give in to their demands. Only after the agreement was achieved at the end of the secret negotiations did it emerge that these talks had been conducted by the Shin Bet under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal supervision — kept secret to avoid arousing anger on the eve of Israel’s elections. Mladenov was tasked with transmitting messages between the parties while providing an international umbrella for the agreement. The goal was to end the hunger strike before Prisoners Day, April 18, and avert escalation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Netanyahu has been determined to reach an arrangement in the Strip for quite some time, even during Israel’s tense election campaign when he faced accusations from both the right and the left that he was paying “protection money” to Hamas in allowing Qatar to transfer Gaza aid money. Many accused him of giving in to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, who terrorized the Israeli south, but throughout, Netanyahu remained steadfast. “I don’t launch unnecessary wars,” Netanyahu explained before the elections. He maintained this stance following the missiles launched at Israel’s central Tel Aviv-Dan region even when a home in the Sharon was hit. Then came the prisoners’ strike, an unforeseen complication at the time, when Erdan opened yet another front at a very inconvenient point that also demanded the direct involvement of the prime minister.

Notably, Erdan was not one of the decision-makers regarding an agreement with the prisoners, even though he was involved in concocting the sticky situation to begin with. And even though it was Netanyahu who managed the crisis, Erdan can also present the agreement that was reached as a victory. After all, everyone agrees that public telephones are much better than smuggled cell phones.

Netanyahu, though he was preoccupied with his political survival and fought for every vote, simultaneously dealt with putting out security-related fires. He hoped to achieve a quiet front in Gaza by promising Hamas that he’d tend to the arrangement after the elections. He was thus able to end the prisoners’ hunger strike without looking like he capitulated to their demands. Another reason for his success was that Hamas also understood that it wasn’t a good time to start a conflict with Israel. The Hamas leaders must have been satisfied by Netanyahu’s victory in the elections. They had waited patiently and now the arrangement is ready to be carried out and the prisoners have access to telephones. They could not have hoped for a better outcome.

A Hamas source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said that the pressure on the movement’s leaders, especially on Sinwar (who views himself as a father figure to the prisoners), to resolve the issue was extremely strong. The source added that Israel agreed to free several hundred prisoners whose terms of incarceration are almost up and other prisoners sentenced to short terms, but not prisoners with Jewish blood on their hands. This message was delivered via Egyptian mediators involved in the talks. Their expected release as a goodwill gesture during Ramadan is designed to create a positive atmosphere for a wider deal: the return of the bodies of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin as well as two Israeli captives held by Hamas in Gaza.

Netanyahu wants to finalize the arrangement details even before his new government is sworn in so he can nip any opposition in the bud. He also needs silence the hawks in his coming government and let them expend their energy in another direction — such as the US president’s “deal of the century” that waits around the corner.

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Found in: israeli elections, cellphones, palestinian prisoners visits, palestinian prisoners, gaza strip, hamas, benjamin netanyahu, hunger strike

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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