By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
In the Middle East, things change all the time, but ultimately countries’ politics stay the same. That situation particularly holds true when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian relations.
In recent months, some events have occurred that might suggest a potential for real change. But as most Middle East commentators will note, chances are the bloody status quo will continue as is.
Israel Is Attempting to Weaken Support for Hamas by Offering Life-Changing Work Permits
After the last exchange of fire in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has voiced several threats concerning the use of violence if their demands are not met. For instance, Hamas has demanded the transfer of fuel from Qatar to the Gaza Strip. This fuel would be sold to pay Hamas civil servants.
Israel was not willing to supply funds to the Gaza Strip, fearing that the money will be used by Hamas for terrorist activities. Egyptian brokers are still attempting to mediate the situation, but it is unclear if there is any room for either side to maneuver.
The Israelis have decided to go around Hamas by publicly offering work permits in Israel to Gazans. In recent months, for example, Israel has given 7,000 Gazans improved work permits, mostly to people who want to work in construction or agriculture. This type of work permit will increase the daily salary of such workers by five or six times.
The Israeli interest is clear. By giving thousands of Palestinians work permits that are life- changing, that tactic will reduce the power of Hamas and other radical Islamic organizations to attract recruits and resume firing on Israel.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz would like to offer more of these permits. While the Israeli security forces are worried about possible terrorist attacks, there is a strong consensus in Israel that offering Gazans improved prosperity will weaken Hamas.
Hamas Fears That It Will Lose Support
There are reports that the radical wing of Hamas is worried and that Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip may grow softer with Israel’s strategy. For that reason, Hamas leaders in Qatar have organized a parallel military wing in Lebanon.
In Palestinian refugee camps within Lebanon, there have been reports of a military unit controlled by Qatari Hamas leaders and sanctioned by Hezbollah. This organization has created weapons depots with missiles that Hamas can use to fire on Israel.
Deputy Hamas leader Salah al-Arouri organized this military unit. It now includes several hundred fighters mainly in the Tyre area.
The Gaza leadership has also made clear in recent weeks that violence is still an option. For instance, Islamic organizations fired on an Israeli civilian in late December, which led to Israeli tanks firing on Palestinian targets.
Later, missiles launched from Gaza landed in the sea across from Tel Aviv. Hamas explained that the missiles were fired by mistake, but Israel retaliated with an attack on targets in the Gaza area. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett commented that if the Hamas military infrastructure is not immune to accidents, it should be dismantled.
Will the increased prosperity of civilians change the political reality in Gaza? Will the strategy of supplying work permits lead Hamas recruits to forsake violence? Probably not, but it is a card Israel must play since there are no real other options on the table.
A Meeting Between Israel and the Palestinian Authority
Last month, Gantz invited Mahmoud Abbas to his home; Abbas is the leader of the Palestinian Authority. In his official statement, Gantz said: “This evening I met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. We discussed the implementation of economic and civilian measures, and emphasized the importance of deepening security coordination and preventing terror and violence – for the well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
Will this meeting between Gantz and Abbas mean renewed negotiations after so many years of no progress? It is unlikely – Abbas controls the West Bank and cannot speak for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
Surveys show that Hamas also has support in the West Bank and that Abbas, who is in his eighties, has no real support in his constituency. The only real partner for talks will need to be the next leader of the Palestinian Authority, whoever that will be.
So why did Gantz talk to Abbas? Gantz wants to show he is doing something positive to change the political reality in the region. That’s not a bad thing for a person who still dreams of being Prime Minster and also wants to use the prosperity model in the West Bank.
The Times of Israel notes, “The current Israeli government, to that end, has loaned the Palestinian Authority NIS 500 million to ease its crippling debt crisis; provided permits to undocumented Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza; and increased the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel in an effort to pump the West Bank economy.”
Israel Plans to Offer Work Permits to Palestinians
This month, Israel announced a new pilot project – 500 Palestinians can get work permits to work in the Israeli high-tech sector. The Times of Israel observes, “The number of tech worker permits to be issued is small: only an initial 200 will be issued in 2022. The quota will rise by another 200 in 2023 before maxing out at 500 total permits in 2024. That amount is dwarfed by the 130,000 Palestinians who currently hold work permits for inside Israel and in West Bank settlements, the majority of whom work in blue-collar jobs.”
Several hundred Palestinians already work for Israeli high-tech companies through outsourced Palestinian contractors. However, these permits allow the direct hiring of Palestinians and the ability to offer them higher salaries.
The Next Leader of the Palestinian Authority Could Make a Deal
The future of the Israelis and the Palestinians will depend on their leadership. Now, there is no leader in the Palestinian arena with the will or the support to hammer a deal with Israel.
Whoever takes the place of Abbas will be in a position to make a deal, assuming that person will be able to reunite the Palestinians and establish a unified front between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. There are many names that have been mentioned as potential successors to Abbas. But in the Middle East, you should always expect the unexpected.