Senior defense officials one meets these days – not only members of the Government Coordinator of Activities in the Territories unit, but officers in uniform, and to some extent even the Shin Bet security service – are voicing surprisingly similar opinions about the situation in the Gaza Strip. The economy in the Strip is on the verge of total collapse, like from zero to below zero, as one official put it, and so is civilian infrastructure.
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Hamas weak position, both economically and politically, makes it easier for Israel to take the necessary steps to destroy its tunnel project. As reported Saturday, Israel demolished a fourth tunnel in the Gaza Strip in less than three months (and in one incident a Hamas man was injured in Lebanon in an explosion by entities unknown). But politicians in Israel are acting as if military pressure can continue on the Strip, ignoring the worsening economic situation, and that has experts worried. In the long term, continually deteriorating infrastructure brings the risk of an uncontrollable blow-up in the Strip.
About two weeks ago, Haaretz reported that the number of trucks passing through the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza has been cut in half due to the decline in purchasing power of Gazas people. The latest statistics say the number of trucks is down a third, to between just 300 to 400 trucks a day.
About 95 percent of Gazas water is undrinkable. Hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of sewage flow into the Mediterranean daily, reaching Israels shores as well. Theres a bit more electricity available now – up to six or seven hours a day, thanks to a decision by the Palestinian Authority to go back to funding some of the power, which is purchased from Israel. Experts warn of the outbreak of infectious diseases.
Unemployment in the Gaza Strip is inching toward 50 percent and is even higher among young people. The more than two million people now living in Gaza are trapped between the harsh Hamas regime and the almost total impossibility of leaving the Strip because of the closed crossings into Israel and Egypt.
When Israel began building its anti-tunnel barrier almost a year ago, concerns were raised that Hamas might try to mount an attack through a tunnel on the Gazan border before this strategic asset, into which Hamas has sunk hundreds of millions of shekels over the past 10 years, is taken away from them.
Meanwhile, that hasnt happened, although the bulldozers are advancing. At the same time, as reported, four tunnels have been destroyed in three months on account of intelligence and technology.
Hamas, poorer and more isolated than in the past, is in a trap. It depends on Egypt and fears angering the generals in Cairo. But it seems that the explanation for its policy of restraint is also connected to the election of Yahya Sinwar as the organizations leader in Gaza. Sinwar controls the Strip both politically and militarily. His predecessor, Ismail Haniyeh, who is above him in the hierarchy, is a resident of Gaza, unlike Haniyehs predecessor, Khaled Meshal, who urged a hard line from his comfortable location in Qatar. Haniyeh and Sinwar are meanwhile taking a relatively moderate stance.
Israel is considering changes in civilian policy toward the Gaza Strip. But Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz has been unable even to advance a serious discussion on a plan for an artificial island off the Gazan coast, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman oppose. Discussion of other proposals, like bringing in thousands of laborers from the Strip to work in Israeli border communities (which involves a security risk), have dragged on for months.
The summer 2014 war in Gaza broke out for a combination of reasons. Israel increased its punitive measures against Hamas in the West Bank after three teenagers from Gush Etzion were abducted; it turned out later theyd been killed. Hamas economic difficulties increased due to a clash with the PA, which stopped paying salaries to government workers in the Strip. The final spark came from Kerem Shalom, when Israel suspected that Hamas was about to launch a terror attack through a tunnel.
This time, there are no clear signs that Hamas has had enough. Israel could continue touting its tactical successes, without deciding what it wants to happen in Gaza. But as in the north, the adversarys relative restraint might mislead the Israeli leadership into a war that it says it does not want.