As Gaza Rebuilding Lags, Risk of Renewed War Grows

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A Palestinian youth sleeps in his damaged house in Beit Hanun, in the Gaza Strip's north, September 7, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Early this week, the daily al-Quds al-Araby reported that a high-level Egyptian delegation had spent the past few days shuttling between Ramallah and Jerusalem. It’s not hard to guess what the Egyptians were doing: trying to bridge the gaps between Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to prevent a renewed outbreak of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

At the moment, it still seems possible to prevent the truce from breaking down at the end of this month. But the almost complete absence of reconstruction work in Gaza and Hamas’ difficulty in presenting any real achievements from the war are increasing the risk that the fighting will resume.

Under the cease-fire agreement Egypt brokered in late August, the parties are supposed to return to Cairo around September 25 to negotiate over a longer-term truce. Hamas has recently been sending conflicting messages. Its military wing says it will resume the war if the organization’s demands aren’t met. But Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior member of Hamas’ political wing who lives in Cairo, says the possibility of progress in the talks must first be thoroughly explored.

As Haaretz reported on August 31, senior Israel Defense Forces officers have advised the government to be generous about easing the partial blockade of Gaza, on the theory that starting to repair the massive damage Gaza suffered is essential to prevent renewed fighting. Among other recommendations, they urged significantly easing movement through the border crossings and expanding Gaza’s fishing zone.

Netanyahu and Ya'alon's political bind

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon appear to understand that such steps are necessary, but are caught in a political bind: Hamas will present any such measures as concessions wrested from Israel by the fighting, which in turn will expose Netanyahu and Ya’alon to further criticism from their already unhappy right-wing base.

Moreover, there is disagreement with the government over Hamas’ intentions. A senior political figure told reporters this week that Hamas resumed digging attack tunnels and manufacturing rockets in Gaza shortly after the cease-fire began. Defense officials vehemently deny this. Essentially, this is another front in the ongoing war between Ya’alon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which began while the fighting in Gaza was still going on.

A few days ago, after Hamas staged yet another victory rally in Gaza, the Qatari television station Al Jazeera broadcast a clip from the rally showing masked men with spades in a tunnel. Did this mean the attack tunnels were back in action, or just that Hamas was looking for bodies under the ruins? One has to hope the Foreign Ministry isn’t basing its conclusions solely on Al Jazeera. On the other hand, even defense officials admit there could be some attack tunnels left that Israel failed to find during the war.

Meanwhile, the task of rebuilding Gaza is going nowhere. The PA is claiming fantastic sums of money will be needed (cynics will say this is so it can steal half the amount), but the only party that has actually started doing anything for Gaza’s residents is the UN Relief and Works Agency. Building new houses for the hundreds of thousands left homeless will take a long time, and at the current pace, the new refugees will be living in tents well into the winter.

Ending this impasse depends in large measure on the PA. Both Ramallah and Cairo are demanding that PA forces from the West Bank be given an increased presence not just at Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt, but all along the Gaza-Egypt border. This will inevitably entail a conflict, whether open or less so, with Hamas.

So far, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been adamant on this point, insisting there must be “one authority and one gun” – i.e., that Hamas’ security services in Gaza must be subordinated to those of the PA. This insistence comes against the background of the Shin Bet security service’s discovery of what it termed a Hamas plot to seize control of the West Bank. News of the plot infuriated Abbas, and Hamas sources say he has brought it up over and over in the cease-fire talks with Hamas leaders.

But Abbas isn’t just clashing with Hamas; he’s also taking a confrontational stance against Israel. His statements and those of his envoys show he is determined to stage a diplomatic showdown. Specifically, he has threatened to have the PA apply to numerous UN institutions unless Israel agrees to withdraw from the West Bank within three years. Some Israeli officials are already worrying that the new atmosphere in Ramallah could undermine the PA’s security coordination with Israel in the West Bank.

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