Analysis

Israel Tightening Gaza Blockade – but Ball Is in Hamas' Court

Reduction in imports and exports reflects Israel's frustration. If Egypt also places restrictions, Hamas will have to choose between deliberate escalation and serious talks

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in June 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israeli announcement on Monday of a reduction in the transfer of goods to and from the Gaza Strip reflects the frustration in the political and military leadership at the situation on the Gaza border. The various means tried by the defense establishment in response to the incendiary kites have not yielded any real results. Resorting to an economic sanction is meant to serve as a substitute for the growing demand in the cabinet to fire at the kite fliers, many of them children and teenagers. A strengthening of the blockade really is likely to spur the Hamas government in Gaza to change its approach – but at the moment there is no guarantee that things will progress in the direction that Israel wants.

Since the end of Operation Protective Edge, which began four years ago this week, Israel has refrained from closing the Kerem Shalom crossing, with the exception of one day when it was closed in response to the firing of rockets and another day, in April, after Palestinian rioters set fire to buildings on the Gazan side of the compound. The new decision does not apply to bringing in food and medicine. But it will affect the importation of goods into the Strip, first and foremost building materials, and will stop the meager export of agricultural products from Gaza to the outside world.

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The Palestinians hit on the idea of using kites by chance, during a wave of demonstrations that began along the separation fence on March 30. When participation in the demonstrations dwindled, the incendiary kites and balloons became the main means of agitation. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday that to date about 28,000 dunams of natural forest and fields have been burned in the Gaza border communities, “an area the size of the city of Netanya or Rehovot.”

Gradually, Hamas started to take charge of this attack. Hamas operatives coordinated the production of the incendiary kites and their distribution to squads that flew them in the direction of the fence. When the Israel Defense Forces responded with aerial attacks on cars used by these operatives and by attacking Hamas military sites, the organization changed its response. In the past month and a half, rocket barrages were launched several times at the border communities – and Israel was forced to discontinue the aerial attacks, for fear that the firing of rockets would lead to a major round of violence, which it doesn’t want.

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But the fields and the forests are still being burned. Last week there was an average of 10 to 20 fires a day. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rarely discusses the incidents (and hasn’t been seen in the area even once since March, despite the complaints of the residents), approved the recommendation by Lieberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot to reduce the transfer of goods. The aim is to make it clear to Hamas what it is losing as a result of the continued violence.

But it’s hard to predict the influence of this new tactic. In recent months Egypt has made it easier for Gaza residents to get to Sinai via the Rafah crossing, and has allowed hundreds of trucks to bring goods from its territory to Gaza. If Egypt also increases the pressure now, Hamas will have to choose between deliberate escalation and beginning serious negotiations.

These indirect negotiations – Israel and Hamas refuse to sit down at the same table – are already being conducted through various channels, including Egypt, Qatar, Germany and an envoy of the UN secretary general to the region, according to the Al-Hayat newspaper. We can reasonably assume that the newly declared Israeli step corresponds with developments in the negotiating channels, which we still don’t know anything about.

In a rare interview with the Kan public broadcasting news division, the Qatari envoy to the region, Mohammed al-Emadi, said that the demonstrations and incendiary kites can be stopped if Israel allows the entry of about 5,000 workers from the Strip to work in Israel – a demand that the Shin Bet security service, with Lieberman’s support, opposes for reasons of security. Emadi also rejected Israel’s attempt to condition humanitarian steps on the return of the two missing Israeli citizens and the bodies of two IDF soldiers being held in the Strip.

Emadi says that there is a need for a “prisoners in exchange for prisoners” deal – the release of over 50 Hamas members from the West Bank who were released in the deal to free abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and later rearrested by Israel in response to the kidnapping of  three yeshiva students in June 2014. That’s an old Hamas demand, which Israel has described in the past as an unacceptable precondition.

A few months ago, prior to his departure as the head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi told the cabinet and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the situation in the Strip is advancing towards one of two scenarios – another round of fighting, or a more comprehensive agreement that would include an improvement in Gaza’s basic conditions, to be achieved through diplomatic channels.

His audience had the impression that he doesn’t believe it’s possible to pursue a third option for long. Meanwhile, Halevi has assumed his new position as the head of Southern Command. If even the new tactic that was adopted today doesn’t convince Hamas to focus once again on the negotiating channels, we can assume that the sides will continue to slide down in the direction of a military confrontation, despite their declared unwillingness to go there.