Shopping in the Middle East can be a surprise to Westerners. There’s the greeting, the inquiry after one’s family, leading questions from the buyer, perhaps a cup of Arabic coffee from the seller. The buyer suggests a price, and the vendor protests that to accept it would bring his children to the brink of starvation. The buyer strides ostentatiously from the establishment, only to be called back by a better deal.
The rejection by Hamas of Egypt’s cease-fire deal after more than a week of missile exchange with Israel was merely good business for Middle Eastern bargaining, said Ghaith al Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine at an American Enterprise Institute discussion.
The Egyptian deal did not meet any of Hamas’s demands, namely: a re-release of the prisoners Israel first freed in 2011, funds from Qatar to pay employees’ salaries, and a reopening the “secret” supply tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. That last one is especially relevant; some have speculated that the supply tunnels are what drove Hamas to enter a unity government with Fatah, which is what started the recent hostilities in the first place.
In his early days of power Morsi was under pressure to show he could cooperate with Israel, and, annoyed with Gazan militants, he oversaw destruction of the supply tunnels starting in August of 2012. Those tunnels were vital to Gaza and accounted for 30 percent of all its goods, reported Reuters at the time.
Obviously, relations did not improve when Sisi took over and declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. This made Egypt an even less suitable broker for negotions with Hamas. Egypt also insulted Hamas by releasing its ceasefire plan to the media before it went to Hamas itself, which was probably an intentional slight.
Hamas would much prefer, in fact, to shop elsewhere for this deal. Turkey and Qatar are its remaining allies in the Middle East, and either or both could use the opportunity for political gain.
From a Western perspective, of course, this political strategem looks suicidal on the part of Hamas. The death toll is now Gaza: 213, Israel: 0, and it seems incredible that all these deaths, countless injuries, and the thorough destruction of Gaza’s scarce infrastructure do not impel Hamas’s rapt attention at the negotiating table, pocketbook out. An outside observer might applaud Israel’s efforts to prevent civilian deaths by, for example, distributing leaflets warning them to flee before dropping bombs. Likewise, he might might stand aghast at Hamas for walking away while women and children die.
Hamas leaders, however, know that the Palestinians of Gaza believe they are at war. They would never say these deaths are the fault of Hamas, as al Omari noted, but would only see it as further, wearying proof of Israel’s villainy. This is why Hamas can afford to walk away from the bargain with Egypt and hope for a better deal.
Perhaps this came in part with Israel’s announcement today that it will observe a five-hour truce on Thursday, as reported by the BBC. One should never underestimate the spontaneity of a Middle Eastern bargain.