In four different incidents over the past few weeks, IDF soldiers killed armed Palestinians who tried to cross the border fence with the Gaza Strip and enter Israel. In some of these cases, IDF commanders in the field noticed something new: The Palestinians who approached the border looked “hyped up,” as if they were under the influence of strong drugs. Some of the young people who confront the soldiers along the border fence in the large Friday protests, and are taking unreasonable risks, have also demonstrated similar behavior.
Addiction to drugs, and in particular painkillers, has been described as a real plague in the Gaza Strip today, mostly among young people. While Hamas is excusing the numerous attempts to cross the border into Israel and attack as acts of “angry young people,” it is possible that the drugs are playing a role here, too.
The problem in Gaza is first and foremost socioeconomic. Two million people are still stuck in a crowded space, living in harsh daily conditions. In spite of a certain amount of improvement in the supply of electricity and water in recent months, the result is still a rise in the level of violence.
A series of inquiries with military and intelligence officers in recent days shows that they are sticking with the explanation they provided for the events a week or two ago: Hamas is not behind these attempts, say the officials.
Some of the attackers even used the gun supplied to them by Hamas, but the cells, according to this explanation, were operating independently. Their actions express a dual frustration: From the personal situation of the militants and from the situation in the Gaza Strip at large, while Hamas is being accused of remaining silent, and even of collaboration with Israel, in light of the blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza. After the recent incidents, Hamas arrested a number of those suspected of being involved in the attempts and in launching rockets, and confiscated weapons.
Israel may have eased the blockade somewhat, and Egypt has made the movement of people and goods through the border crossings in Rafah easier, but the basic economic circumstances in the Gaza Strip have remained on the verge of insufferable. In the continuum between an Israel-Hamas arrangement and escalation, in the past few weeks it seems as if the balance is tilting in the direction of violence.
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The main obstacle is a lack of willingness to reach an agreement on the issue of the captive and missing Israelis in Gaza. Without a solution that includes the return of the two Israeli civilians held captive in the Strip and the bodies of the two dead soldiers held since Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, Gaza is stuck in place. Support is growing among defense officials for an arrangement, even at the price of a certain amount of flexibility toward Hamas, in the hope that this will allow much broader actions to rehabilitate the infrastructure in Gaza and help avoid a war.
Still, we should not get too excited about the new threats voiced by Likud ministers against Hamas. The last thing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants is a military confrontation with Hamas. The Hamas leadership understands this – and that may be part of the problem, which could well lead the two sides in the end to a clash, even against their will.
Col. (res.) Michael Milshtein was the head of the Palestinian desk in Military Intelligence during Protective Edge. Milshtein finds “too much worrying similarity between the present circumstances in Gaza and the conditions that created the campaign in 2014.”
“The harsh civilian situation, alongside the motivational difficulties of Hamas in enforcing order on the rest of the Palestinian factions, has increased the chances of uncontrolled escalation,” added Milshtein. “There is no external power that adequately influences Hamas, while at the same time there is a feeling of public despair in the Gaza Strip that raises a fear inside the organization of popular discontent with its leadership. Restraints may still exist from the fighting five years ago, but they are being gradually eroded. The militant declarations from both sides contribute to the feeling that another campaign is just a matter of time. The question is only what will be the spark,” said Milshtein.