The Egyptian delegation to Gaza arrived on Friday to watch Hamas work its magic on the demonstrators. They were indeed enthralled. There were fewer protesters – thousands, not tens of thousands. They kept a greater distance from the border fences and there were no fatalities. The Egyptian and Israeli conclusion is that Hamas not only holds the knobs on the stove, it can also adjust the height and intensity of the flames. If it chooses, the thousands will confront the Israel Defense Forces, and if it chooses, they will stop the attacks on the fence.
But this is a conclusion that did not need any proof, certainly since Israel constantly claims that Hamas is the sole responsible party in the Gaza Strip and controls everything that happens there. This conclusion should have made Israel realize years ago that trying to foment a civil revolt against Hamas in Gaza through a blockade and sanctions on Hamas is simply not realistic. The theory that replaced it said that while the punishments shouldn’t cease, they should be reframed as a means of pressuring Hamas and putting it in a position where it was liable to lose its legitimacy and public support if it didn’t do what Israel wanted, which would lead to an easing of Gaza’s living conditions.
In fact, it was the same theory and strategy as its failed predecessor. The real threat is the two million Palestinians who have been living under a brutal siege for 11 years. Both Israeli pressure on Hamas from above by reducing its ability to rule, and the attempt to provoke public protest against Hamas from below, relied on a role that the Gaza public was supposed to play.
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But the public in Gaza turned into a strategic force that led even the IDF to speak up about the severe living conditions in the Strip, and in the end forced Hamas to pursue an arrangement that is still being negotiated. For six months, tens of thousands of people were enlisted in a show of force called the March of Return. Some 20,000 to 30,000 people, young and old, women and children, take their lives in their hands, and they don’t come to the confrontation line just because Hamas orders them to. They are the force that represents two million people who have nothing to lose.
One could ask why tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of more don’t join them, but it’s the same question that could be asked of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt, which in the best case drew half a million to a million people representing some 90 million citizens. If you compare the size of the Egyptian and Gazan populations, one could say that 20,000 Gaza demonstrators are equal in force to a million people, around half the Strip’s population. The consistency and devotion exhibited by the demonstrators in Gaza have an enormous power that proved to Israel and Hamas that this was not a temporary show of strength, but a phenomenon unprecedented in Gaza or the West Bank since the second intifada ended, or at least since Hamas seized control of the Strip in 2007.
Israel chose to ignore this public display and aimed its sharpshooters at those launching balloons or who were identified as leaders of the demonstrations, or who dared to come too close to the fence. Thus it could bypass the substantive reason for the demonstrations by portraying its mission as the defeat of an “armed” enemy endangering Israel’s security.
There is no disputing that the balloons caused great damage and put lives at risk; this enabled Israel to present the conflict as a struggle against a terrorist organization and not as a confrontation with a civilian population. At the same time, it neutralized the danger of war, because who is going to launch a war against balloons? One can heap praises on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for abstaining from war, but what prevented war was the nature of the conflict, which did not provide the required legitimacy for a full-scale military campaign.
The issue of an arrangement that has been accompanying the confrontation all along – and which has shattered the established view that one doesn’t negotiate with terrorist groups – turned the talks with Hamas into talks with Gaza’s population. The permit to bring in fuel, arranging for salaries to be paid through Qatar, the emerging willingness to allow 5,000 Gazan laborers to come work in Israel, the promise to build a port and to enlarge the fishing zone – these are all civil steps aimed at calming the Gazan public and giving Hamas means of control.
Israel isn’t demanding that Hamas disarm or that it disarm other groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Committees, nor is it demanding that Hamas give control over the border crossings or tax collection to the Palestinian Authority. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is making those demands of Hamas, not Israel.
From this we see that the question of “strengthening” or “weakening” Hamas is no longer relevant, since Israel gave up testing the organization’s power when it abandoned the diplomatic process and went over to a policy of splitting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which makes preserving Hamas’ power important. This policy requires Israel to be concerned about Gaza’s welfare, not for humanitarian or altruistic reasons, but as a strategic decision that ascribes power to this exhausted and impoverished populace, which has managed to fashion a diplomatic relationship between Israel and Hamas that even includes undeclared security cooperation.
This strategy cannot tolerate any more delays. It requires declaring the intent to totally lift the blockade, subject to practical security restrictions, to open the gates to large investments, to create jobs for thousands of Gaza residents and to implement the rehabilitation plan that was agreed on after Operation Protective Edge, and which Egypt and Israel agreed upon again a few weeks ago. The conflict is no longer with Hamas, but with a large population that has proven its strength.