Analysis

Israel Goes Easy on Hamas, Harder on Abbas

Promise to ease restrictions on Gaza means Israel has to forego its strategic aspiration to cut the Strip off from the rest of the country

Palestinians walk on concrete blocks at the seaport of Gaza City, April 2, 2019.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters

There are three levels to the Israeli promise to ease restrictions on the Gaza strip. The first is concrete and visible – what restrictions are being lifted and what the benefit is. The second is political – the fact that Israel and Hamas are conducting indirect negotiations, and not for the first time, and are both doing so willingly.

Hamas has managed to position itself as a political factor that must be talked to, and right at a time when Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump are landing economic and diplomatic blows on Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Israel, for its part, considers the Gaza Strip a separate political entity from the West Bank enclave and is working to perpetuate the separation. The negotiations serve the separation and so they are legitimate in the eyes of those who consider Hamas a terrorist group.

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The third level is a matter for sociologists and anthropologists. The “easing of restrictions” is a term taken from a paternalistic, arrogant world of omnipotent rulers of subjects without rights, including the right to decide. The uncritical use of this term by the media for decades now shows more about Israeli society than about the lifting of the restrictions itself. The lifting of restrictions is the exception, as opposed to “restrictions and imposing greater restrictions,” as a policy that need not be reported because it is the rule. 

Israel’s sleight of hand in moving from greater to lesser restrictions is a means of control. Even if the worn-out pretext is Israel’s security, it inculcates in those who possess this tool of control the belief in their inherent superiority and the inferiority of those to whom the lifting or imposing restrictions applies.

As to the easing of restrictions itself: The situation in the Gaza Strip is so unimaginably awful that every additional mile of fishing zone, every additional five trucks to market produce from Gaza to Ramallah or Jaffa – has an immediate positive effect. Five or ten jobless people go back to work. A fishing family can pay back a debt at the grocery and buy something essential that it could not afford for months, for example medicine for the mother’s chronic illness or fruit for the children.

It was mainly fishing that was mentioned with regard to the easing of restrictions. According to UN data, in 2000 there were some 10,000 fishermen in Gaza. That figure declined after Israel restricted their access to the sea and because of the frequency with which Israel Navy ships fired on unarmed fishermen, injured and even killed some over the years, arrested them and confiscated their boats and equipment. There are now 3,700 registered fishermen, but only 2,000 make their living at it daily. Even if all the fishermen were to return to work, it would not do much to effect unemployment in the Gaza Strip, which in 2018 reached a record high of 52 percent of the labor force and almost 70 percent of young people.

And even if Israel continues to avoid imposing new “heavier restrictions” it will soon become clear that the improvement is not enough. Because the “lifting of restrictions” does not touch the root of the problem and does not ensure the two essential elements without which the Gaza Strip can’t be extricated from the UN prediction for it four years ago – that by 2020 it will be unfit for human habitation. These two essential elements are clean water and freedom of movement.

The immediate and simple road, technically speaking, is to channel good drinking water from Israel to the Strip. It could be considered partial compensation for the huge quantities of water Israel pumps from the West Bank to meet the needs of Israel’s citizens and the settlements at the expense of the Palestinians. But this would be a recognition of the geographical and political connection between the Gaza Strip, Israel and the West Bank. 

The sun rises as fishermen are seen at the seaport of Gaza City, after Israel expanded fishing zone for Palestinians, April 2, 2019.
Suhaib Salem/Reuters

The second element is freedom of movement or rather the need to dismantle the huge prison that Gaza has become, from which only people who are terminally ill can go through the Erez crossing, along with business people who don’t dare talk to the media about how Israeli restrictions are destroying the economy, collaborators with the Shin Bet security service, certain athletes, a few senior Fatah officials and people whom the United States supports their departure. Israel and the West Bank are a more natural and closer destination for Gazans than Egypt and Cairo. Only when Palestinians can freely come and go abroad and to the West Bank via Israel and work in Israel as well, will Egypt be able to regularly open the Rafah crossing. That is, when it is no longer afraid of being flooded with Gazans who want to flee a place where they can no longer live.

Israel’s decision to make these changes means it has to forego its strategic aspiration to cut the Gaza Strip off from the rest of the country. But that separation was and is a fundamental element of its policy. That catch brings us back to the political level of easing restrictions, which at the moment carries more weight than its positive economic ramifications. Talk of easing restrictions creates anticipation, which somewhat reduces the tension that has accumulated due to the suppression of the social protests. The public in Gaza has seen restrictions reduced and made harsher. But Gazans are constantly seeking a straw to grasp at, to blunt their despair and anxiety over the near future; the possibility of another major Israeli assault a week ago, to line up with Hamas as an armed resistance movement. The buzz created by talk of easing restrictions, together with more money from Qatar reinforces Hamas as a political factor.

While Israel allows Qatar to transfer more cash to the Gaza Strip, as part of the ongoing indirect negotiations, it deducts a sum equivalent to the allowances that the PA pays to prisoners’ families from the bulk money of customs and taxes it owes to the Palestinian treasury. Many of those prisoners are affiliated with Hamas. The PA, in an act of political muscle flexion, is refusing so far to accept the rest of the money that Israel has to transfer every month. Therefore, it has entered a new phase of cuts in public service salaries and now has stopped referring patients to Israeli hospitals. 

The Palestinian public targets its anger at the PA, and notices the difference: Israel is easier on the organization that has built a military power that the PLO could only fantasize about during the 1970s. Israel is harder on the PA, which loyally adheres to the security coordination with the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet, and whose policemen disappear from the streets and rush to their stations any time an Israeli military jeep enters area A. This distinction alone contributes to the strengthening of Hamas’ status as the significant political factor in the Palestinian arena.