Analysis

A New Underground Reality Is Taking Shape Along the Gaza-Israel Border

Increased pressure from Abbas could push Hamas to try to pull off a cross-border raid | Israel's massive anti-tunnel barrier is causing Hamas to up its posts on the other side − which isn’t necessarily bad

Work on Israel's anti-tunnel barrier on the Gaza border, 2017.
Work on Israel's anti-tunnel barrier on the Gaza border, 2017. Amir Cohen / Reuters

In recent weeks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been gradually ramping up the pressure on the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. One punitive measure has followed another: ceasing to pay the tax on imported fuel, slashing salaries by one-third for 45,000 civil servants in Gaza who are still paid by the PA, ceasing to pay for Gaza’s electricity from Israel.

Israeli defense officials are still having trouble explaining the change in Abbas’ approach, given that for the past decade, ever since Hamas seized power in the Strip, he hasn’t confronted the organization directly. “The chick still hasn’t sprouted feathers,” then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said of Abbas in 2003. But now that the chick has turned 82, something has evidently changed.

One possible explanation is that Abbas believes Hamas will ultimately face an internal uprising – a hope shared by some Israelis. The idea is that Gazans will take to the streets, just like the Egyptians who flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square six years ago, and bring down Gaza’s Islamist government.

So far, however, there are no signs of this happening. Last winter, when there were similar problems with the power supply, a wave of protests briefly erupted, but Hamas was able to suppress them.

Gazans’ problems worsening

This spring the picture is a bit different. The severe power shortage is mainly affecting public institutions like hospitals and schools. Many Gazans, used to disruptions in the power supply, have bought private generators. Running a generator costs a lot of money but it still might not be enough to push Gazans to the end of their rope.

Even if the people do lose patience, it’s hard to see Hamas’ leaders giving up on their greatest project, the Islamist government they’ve run in Gaza since May 2007. Instead, if the pressure increases, they’re likely to seek another way out of the trap.

One option might be to encourage the people to launch “spontaneous” demonstrations along the border with Israel in an effort to divert the anger toward Israel (any harsh response by Israeli soldiers would further inflame the situation). Another alternative is military action − a cross-border raid via a tunnel or otherwise, which would divert the public’s attention away from Hamas’ responsibility for its people’s distress.

This distress is worsening even as Hamas, which collects tax on every bit of merchandise that enters the Strip, is still devoting most of its available cash to building up its military capabilities. The number of trucks bringing goods from Israel and the West Bank into Gaza averaged more than 1,000 per day this week – five times the daily average before the last Hamas-Israel war in the summer of 2014.

Hamas notices

A new reality is taking shape along the Gaza-Israel border. Quietly, Israel has  begun building a new barrier against cross-border tunnels. The barrier combines an underground wall, an above-ground fence and a complex system of sensors and monitoring devices. The work began in a few short stretches near northern Gaza and is supposed to kick into high gear in the coming months.

Hamas is watching closely. Inside Gaza, about 300 meters (328 yards) from the border, the organization has significantly increased its number of lookout posts. Almost always, when cranes and drills appear on the Israeli side, lookout posts spring up on the Palestinian side.

This isn’t necessarily bad from Israel’s standpoint. Hamas’ “border patrol” takes pains to prevent infiltrators from crossing into Israel. It arrests most of them and in one recent case even opened fire on a Palestinian who tried to enter Israel. Senior Israeli officers say Hamas is also striving to prevent rocket fire.

The Hamas outposts also help the army retaliate immediately if a rocket or gun is nevertheless fired at Israel. That is, the outposts become targets that Israel attacks on the grounds that Hamas is responsible for everything that happens in the territory it controls.

Evidently, Hamas also understands the rules of the game. Otherwise it’s hard to explain why almost nobody has been hurt in these Israeli punitive strikes.

It’s clear that a massive engineering project has been launched along the Gaza border. The barrier will only be about 65 kilometers (40 miles) long, roughly a quarter the length of the fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border, but the work on the Gaza border is incomparably more complicated.

When historians and geographers study Israel’s borders over the last two decades, they’ll discover that a little-known figure influenced the topography more than all the leaders and generals put together. That man is Brig. Gen. Eran Ophir, head of the army’s fence-building administration. Following the separation barrier in the West Bank, the fence along the Egyptian border and the one in the Golan Heights, Ophir is now focusing on the barrier along the Gaza frontier.