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With one eye on Syria, Israel reluctantly seeks Gaza truce

Palestinian protesters escape from teargas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, Aug. 3, 2018.

KHALIL HAMRA/AP

By DAVID WAINER | Bloomberg | Published: August 13, 2018

As public pressure mounts on Israeli leaders to crush rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip, they're opting to try the diplomatic route while a greater threat looms: Iran's presence in postwar Syria.

To keep his military focused on the northern front, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pursuing a long-term truce with Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the negotiations, carried out through intermediaries, serve both Israel and Hamas.

"If you ask what's the ideal situation for Iran, it's for Israel to be bogged down in Gaza fighting," said Amidror, a retired general. "We need to focus on the real issue: Iran and Syria. For Hamas, they're desperate and need to find a way to save their project," a reference to the group's rule of Gaza.

As President Bashar Assad's war against opposition forces winds down, Iran is working to strike lasting roots in Syria, increasing its sphere of influence and giving it an arms-transport corridor stretching from Tehran to Beirut. Israeli officials fear Iran could use Syria as a forward base to threaten the Jewish state, similar to the challenge from Lebanon with Iran's proxy militia, Hezbollah.

A Netanyahu spokesman would not comment on any potential linkage in Israeli strategy toward Iran and Hamas.

"Our objective is to restore quiet to residents of the south and the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip," Netanyahu told the Cabinet on Sunday. "This goal will be achieved in full."

Iran's nuclear program, ballistic missiles, support for anti-Israel groups and calls for the Jewish state's destruction lead some Israeli officials to view it as a near-existential threat. In recent months Israel frequently has attacked Iranian bases and other military targets in Syria to pressure Tehran to retreat.

To keep Gaza from becoming a distraction, Israeli officials are backing Egyptian and United Nations efforts to broker a truce with Hamas. The idea would be to trade military quiet for the easing of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade imposed more than a decade ago, according to a person familiar with the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity. If all goes well, later stages could involve international investment in Gaza and the release of Israelis held hostage there.

In a July 19 Washington Post opinion piece, Trump advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman signaled that if Hamas stops seeking confrontation with Israel, Gaza could receive massive international aid.

"If Hamas demonstrates clear, peaceful intentions — not just by word but, more importantly, by deed — then all manner of new opportunities becomes possible," the U.S. officials wrote.

More isolated than ever, Hamas in recent months has sponsored weekly protests at the Gaza border fence that have focused popular anger toward Israel and away from the group's governance of Gaza. Shunned by the West as a terrorist group, Hamas is distrusted by Saudi Arabia and Egypt because of its Muslim Brotherhood origins, and broke with the Palestinian Authority in armed clashes in 2007. Over the past year Qatar, its main patron, distanced itself after neighbors accused it of supporting terrorism, a charge Qatari leaders deny. Hamas leaders say Iran has offered more support since then.

Israeli security officials believe another war with Gaza is likely unless economic conditions in the strip improve, said one official familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have disrupted power supplies and withheld funds from Gaza, trying to pressure Hamas to moderate. President Donald Trump's budget cuts to the U.N. refugee agency serving Palestinians threaten to shutter Gaza schools and limit food supplies. Hamas, for its part, has devoted millions of dollars to its military projects while Gaza's civilian infrastructure crumbles.

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. envoy to the region, has been shuttling among Gaza, Egypt and Israel trying to jump-start humanitarian projects in the strip.

"If we leave things unchanged we're heading into another war, which will be nasty," Mladenov said in an interview.

Not everyone is on board with the cease-fire talks. Mahmoud Abbas's West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which boycotted a White House summit in January seeking aid for Gaza, has raised a number of objections to the current effort. It sees international plans to rebuild Gaza as a plot to circumvent the Palestinian Authority, divide the two Palestinian territories and let the P.A.'s two main adversaries off the hook.

"The Israelis will achieve a defusing of the tension so they can focus on Syria, and consolidate the separation between Gaza and the West Bank," said Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University and former Palestinian Authority cabinet member. "Hamas will get out of the impasse and deep crisis they're in."

Bloomberg's Jonathan Ferziger contributed.

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