Monday, June 24, 2024

Hamas says to express ‘flexibility’ over Gaza future after war

Hamas is prepared to show "flexibility" about the future governance of the Gaza Strip, as long as the decision to rule the war-battered enclave is agreed upon by other Palestinian factions and is not imposed by either the United States or Israel, a senior Palestinian source with knowledge of Hamas' policies has told Middle East Eye.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, also said that Hamas felt the balance of power was “tilting” in its favour as Israel grapples with mounting political divisions over the future of post-war Gaza.

“Hamas is confident that it is deeply rooted in the region and nobody can bypass it,” the source added.

“Nevertheless, Hamas has the political flexibility to accept several formulas… for the future of Gaza. [It is] open to a nationally agreed formula for the good of its people.”

“[But] any settlement that has a chance of being agreed upon nationally should not be imposed by America or Israel. They can not bargain with a weak Palestinian state,” the source continued.

Talks on a ceasefire were due to resume this week, but Hamas told international mediators on Tuesday that it was ending its participation following Sunday’s “massacre” in Rafah by Israel.

At least 45 people were killed and dozens more wounded, most of them women and children, when Israel struck a camp housing displaced Palestinians in the Tel al-Sultan neighbourhood of western Rafah.

The air strikes, which resulted in some Palestinians being burned alive, came just two days after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to “immediately halt its military offensive in Rafah”.

“Hamas does not have to sit down for negotiations while the Israelis continue killing,” a second source close to the organisation told MEE.

“Continuing negotiations while massacres [still happen] provide cover for the massacres and even led to the killing of an Egyptian soldier. This will not happen again.”

The source stated that Hamas would only resume negotiations if Israel stopped the massacres and left Rafah. The Rafah crossing must return to its previous administration, he added, referring to the pre-7 October arrangement.

Speaking on Saturday before the strikes on the refugee camps, the first source said negotiations had been effectively deadlocked, after the failure of the last round in Cairo and Doha.

He noted that negotiations following Israel’s assault on Rafah were now “at an impasse” and the US needed to address issues with Israel over a permanent ceasefire.

“For Hamas, it is clear that the US has to deal with this negotiation. They [Israel] should respect the document that Hamas accepted, without playing silly games and trying to bypass Hamas’s basic demands.”

Earlier this month, Hamas publicly declared its acceptance of a ceasefire deal put forward by mediators Qatar and Egypt, but Israel said the proposal fell way short of its demands.

After the collapse of the talks in Cairo, US sources blamed Egypt for amending the offer to Hamas in its favour. The claim was greeted with fury in Cairo.

The Palestinian source backed Egypt’s version of events. He said that Egypt had not amended the document and that the US was fully aware of any and all amendments, as CIA chief Bill Burns was present in both Cairo and Doha where the document was being discussed.

“Hamas announced its amendments and they were accepted by the negotiators,” the source continued, adding, “The American side were informed and accepted the document. It’s not the mistake of Egypt.

“The Israelis backed away from the deal and the US did not force them to accept something that would have been in their favour.”

As the war in Gaza grinds on for an eighth month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Israel will maintain security control over Gaza and has been criticised by the US for failing to come up with a credible post-war plan for who governs the shattered enclave.

When he last spoke about the issue in February, he suggested replacing Hamas with local representatives “who are not affiliated with terrorist countries or groups, and are not financially supported by them”.

In reality, the attempt to replace a central government with a network of clan leaders had already run into the ground.

Weeks earlier, tribal leaders in Gaza denounced Israeli army proposals to divide Gaza into areas ruled by tribes or clans rather than a single political entity.

A month later reports emerged that Israel was considering installing Majed Faraj, the head of the PA’s intelligence apparatus, as the administrator of Gaza. But that too failed. An attempt by Faraj to infiltrate a group of armed men posing as protection to an Egyptian aid convoy was rumbled and the group was arrested.

Since then, Hamas has denounced manoeuvres undertaken by the PA, including what it called the “unilateral” appointment of Mohammad Mustafa as prime minister. Hamas announced the decision was taken without consulting it, despite the group taking part in a meeting in Moscow attended by Fatah to end divisions.

Since assuming office, Mustafa has outlined in a mission statement that he wants to reform the PA, reunify the West Bank and Gaza, and oversee the enclave’s reconstruction.

The Palestinian source said despite Netanyahu’s declared aim of destroying Hamas, Israel was now recalculating its position on how to deal with the day-after scenario given that Hamas could not be dislodged.

Militarily, the armed wing of Hamas, the Qassam Brigades, have shown their ability to re-emerge in areas cleared by the Israelis and engage soldiers in close-quarter combat, an issue that has been noted with some frustration by top US generals.

Last week, General Charles Brown, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, criticised Israel’s strategy in Gaza in a rare public rebuke.

“Not only do you have to actually go in and clear out whatever adversary you are up against, you have to go in, hold the territory, and then you’ve got to stabilise it,” Brown stated, referencing that monumental task Israeli forces face in Gaza.

Only a few days later Hamas claimed to have captured a group of Israeli soldiers in an ambush in a tunnel complex amid heavy fighting in Jabalia refugee camp in the north, which the Israeli army claimed to have cleared in December.

The claim was denied by Israel, but the Qassam Brigades later released a video showing fighters pulling a man inside a tunnel who appeared to be unconscious. He was pulled alongside military gear.

The video separately showed three semi-automatic rifles and other military gear that Hamas said were taken from the captured Israelis.

A third source with knowledge of the situation on the ground in Gaza told MEE that they estimated only 20 percent of the tunnel network had been destroyed by Israel and that the subterranean complex continued to provide shelter, transport, and a venue for weapons and missile manufacturing.

Apart from recycling high explosives from Israeli bombs and missiles that failed to go off, Hamas seized a substantial quantity of small arms and equipment during the recent Israeli offensive in Khan Younis. After each day of fighting, units manned by young reservists would reportedly abandon their positions at night leaving much of their equipment behind, the source added.

The Palestinian source with knowledge of Hamas’ policies said the group was confident about its support base in Gaza, and said despite the widespread destruction, there were greater divisions in Israel over the direction of the war.

“Despite the imbalance of power between Hamas and Israel, Hamas has learned the lessons of previous wars,” the source said.

“The image of resistance [Palestinian groups such as Hamas] among our people in Gaza is that the resistance is fighting on their behalf, whilst the Israelis think that Netanyahu is fighting for his personal interest.”

The source added that despite Israel throwing everything behind its war effort in Gaza, the strategy had failed and so too would the assault on Rafah.

The Israeli army’s eight-month aerial and ground offensive has turned much of the territory that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians into an uninhabitable hellscape.

Whole neighbourhoods have been erased. Homes, schools, and hospitals have been decimated by air strikes and scorched by tank fire. Some buildings are still standing, but most are battered shells.

Nearly the entire population is reported to have fled their homes and those who remained in northern Gaza are on the verge of famine.

“The carpet bombing failed. Creating chaos [in a bid] to turn the people against Hamas failed and using starvation as a means to crush the will of the people failed,” the source said, adding, “They thought eight months ago that Gaza would be easy to crush. It has no neighbours to help it. It has no mountains to protect the people. But Gaza has steadfastness.”

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