Analysis

Israel Can Blame Hamas All It Wants - It Won't Keep Gaza From Descending Into Collapse

Israeli defense officials are pinning the South's security woes on Hamas- but will the international community care for their excuses when the Strip finally collapses?

A Palestinian woman stands outside her house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.
Braheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman were both asked about Mondays report in Haaretz regarding warnings by senior defense officials that Gazas infrastructure and economy were on the verge of collapse. In response, Netanyahu, during his visit to India, and Lieberman, at a meeting of his Knesset faction, made remarkably similar comments.

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The two made three basic claims: That Hamas, by stubbornly insisting on building up its military force, bears primary responsibility for Gazas distress; to change the circumstances and allow Gazans to live in conditions that are more than just keeping their heads above water, as Lieberman put it, there must be a resolution of the issue of the missing Israelis and bodies of soldiers still held in the Strip; and in the long term, the only thing that will extract Gaza from its situation will be demilitarization in exchange for rehabilitation.

In general the question of the missing is being raised more frequently and is being given a higher priority in the statements of Israeli leaders. Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, said last week at the Globes conference that the approval of large infrastructure projects in Gaza is conditioned on resolving the issue of the missing civilians and soldiers.

Netanyahu and Lieberman both stressed Hamas responsibility for the situation, arguing that the organization, like Iran, which is supporting it financially, prefers to divert every spare dollar to improving its terror capabilities over improving the economy and living conditions of the people. This diagnosis, although correct, only reflects the gap between the current situation and Israels preferred solution – rehabilitating the Strip in exchange for Hamas giving up its weapons.

In practice, Israel didnt really try to realize that objective in the cease-fire agreement it reached at the end of Operation Protective Edge three-and-a-half years ago, and since then nothing has been done to advance this issue at all. Israel, for obvious reasons, is leveraging the exposure of the most recent tunnel Hamas dug into Israeli and Egyptian territory at Kerem Shalom.

On Monday the Israel Defense Forces conducted a tour of the crossing for foreign ambassadors and representatives of international organizations, during which it stressed the utter irresponsibility exhibited by Hamas in digging a tunnel under the crossing through which the entire supply of goods to Gaza depends, adjacent to the pipelines through which fuel is streamed to the Strip. Even if Hamas wasnt planning to blow up the tunnel or use it to commit an attack in the near term, it was a frighteningly dangerous move against which Israel had the right to defend itself.

But Israels arguments against Hamas, and the continued investment in building the anti-tunnel barrier and in locating additional tunnels, cannot offset the discussion of the humanitarian disaster looming in Gaza. The answers by Netanyahu and Lieberman will not be accepted by the international community if sewage floods the refugee camps and neighborhoods this winter and if epidemics rage there, as the professionals in the defense establishment fear. Even less dramatic infrastructure problems, like additional disruptions to the electricity supply, could have bad consequences.

Infectious diseases will not stop at the Erez Crossing and no technology will identify and eliminate them before they cross at Keren Shalom and affect Israelis. Under those circumstance, the question of whether Hamas will resume using its weapons against Israel will be the least of our problems. Israel could be called on to deal with much greater and more urgent challenges, like how to prevent outbreaks of disease in the Negev, whether Israel can stand aside as the hospitals in Gaza collapse or its water system breaks down, and what should be done if masses of Palestinians press against the border fence and beg for Israeli assistance during a humanitarian crisis of a scope weve never dealt with before.