Israel and the Palestinians Are Marching Together Backwards in Time

The headlines this week reeked of déjà vu, reminiscent of previous confrontations and intifadas, as conditions on the ground in Gaza are becoming more and more similar to those that preceded the 2014 war.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A group of seven Hamas leaders on top of a stage joining and raising their hands as they take part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City December 14, 2015. About 10 people are below the stage, also lined up and joining hands.
Hamas leaders, top, joining hands as they take part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City December 14, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The eruption of another cycle of fighting in the Gaza Strip in the coming months is far from being an established fact, despite the preparations underway in the Israel Defense Forces for such an eventuality. On the ground, however, a scenario similar to the one that preceded Operation Protective Edge in July 2014 is gradually unfolding.

The Hamas regime in the Strip feels itself trapped in an increasingly intolerable vise. It is rehabilitating its offensive capabilities and convincing itself that Israel only understands the language of force. Israel’s leadership, which sees no real advantage in a war at this stage, is wavering between making emphatic threats and issuing calming messages, in the hope that its steps will somehow deter Hamas – as well as satisfy the anxious public at home.

Israel is currently adopting a very passive stance. It is getting ready to defend itself by attempting to locate attack tunnels that have been rehabilitated, some of which may already reach into its territory. At this point Israel is not attacking tunnels situated within the Strip, yet is also not taking any significant measures to relieve the economic pressure on Gaza.

The extreme mutual suspicion, misguided interpretations of the enemy’s intentions and absence of any suitable channels of mediation are taking their toll. Egypt is also stirring the pot in the background. It does not wish to see Israeli troops in Gaza (a move which could stir up the masses in Cairo against the regime,) but nor is it receptive to requests by states such as Qatar that it somewhat ease its siege of Gaza.

Under these circumstances, even though a military confrontation would serve neither of the sides, a scenario could unfold in which a miscalculation leads to a flare-up, the model used by the IDF’s Intelligence Corps to retroactively explain the outbreak of hostilities in 2014. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it often works in rhymes.

Israel’s unwillingness to get bogged down in another military confrontation in Gaza is patently clear. The Prime Minister’s forceful declarations, as well as the strange and uncharacteristically aggressive words of opposition leader Isaac Herzog, cannot hide this fact.

There are currently no clear strategic objectives that Israel wishes to attain in Gaza. Toppling Hamas is not an option (during the previous round, it was mainly touted by Avigdor Lieberman speaking to himself.) The consensus in the cabinet and the defense establishment is that any alternative would be worse. When the options include total anarchy in Gaza or, alternately, a takeover by a group inspired by ISIS, Israel prefers the enemy it knows.

Transferring the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority is irrelevant, since President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has already proved that he is not a partner to such a move, as demonstrated by his refusal to take a more active role at the border crossings at the end of the last war.

In any case, Israel faces a host of security problems in the coming year, including the increased potential threat posed by Hezbollah, the ramifications of the civil war in Syria, the possibility of a war of succession in the Palestinian Authority and the ongoing wave of terror attacks on the West Bank, in Jerusalem and occasionally in central Israel, which hare now in their fifth month.

The only factor that could motivate Israel to attack Gaza would be the need to again remove the threat posed by Hamas tunnels. But for that to happen, the cabinet would need a clear-cut casus belli – an argument that would gain the support of both the Israeli public, which largely supported the last three military operations in Gaza from 2008 onwards, and the United States and Western Europe, which showed some understanding for Israel’s decisions to act in the previous rounds of hostilities.

So long as the tunnel threat remains theoretical and the full details are not disclosed, the government will have a hard time justifying an aggressive move, knowing that it would lead to a confrontation with Hamas and with no sign of a solution that could guarantee quiet for many years.

Securing border communities

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon visited communities on the Gaza border this week and promised to quickly find funding for the construction of a new defensive line around the Strip, including effective technological detection of attack tunnels. The amount of funding required and its sources were not officially disclosed, though, as written here a month ago, the estimated cost of the plan will be between 2.6 and 2.8 billion shekels ($670 million - $720 million) and it will not come from the regular defense budget.

The U.S. has committed to help, donating $120 million over three years for the implementation of the technological solution. This indicates that the solution is already at a stage where it can be implemented, since the administration is unlikely to have allocated such funds to measures that have not been designed and tested.

The extensive media coverage of the tunnel threat has occasionally reached absurd proportions in recent days, with residents complaining on TV of excavation noises in a moshav located more than four kilometers from the border (whereas Hams has many easier targets, located only hundreds of meters from the border.) Local council heads in these communities are faced with a dilemma. On one hand, they are committed to protecting their residents, but on the other hand they worry that overblown panic will deter potential new residents.

An extensive plan allocating 1.5 billion shekels ($375 million) to communities along the Gaza border was approved by the Netanyahu government at the end of the 2014 war. Residents were given substantial housing and tax benefits, with additional incentives that led to significant growth in the area’s population. For example, the Eshkol regional council saw an influx of 1,000 newcomers in the last 18 months, bringing the population to 15,000. Kibbutz Kfar Aza is getting ready to receive 40 new families. Government investment in these plans so far is estimated at 25 million shekels (just over $6 million.) New residents are arriving for a variety of reasons, including financial and housing inducements, a high-quality education system and an opportunity for living in good communities. This positive balance will be hard to maintain in face of a renewed threat of tunnels and a possible additional war.

The intense attention to the tunnels in Israel caught Hamas somewhat by surprise, coming as it did amid a series of tunnels collapses in Gaza, presumably due to winter conditions, in which at least nine Hamas operatives were killed. The accidents made it necessary for senior Hamas officials to publicly tout the importance of the tunnels as a strategic weapon in the next round of fighting with Israel.

Mysterious tunnel collapses

This week, the Hamas military wing published an announcement in which the victims were given a new collective name – the “victims of the preparations.” The accidents were exploited by Israel for public relations purposes, with Maj. Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, accusing Hamas of rebuilding the “tunnels of death” at the expense of Gaza’s population. Asked by Palestinian news agency Ma’an, which is operated by the Palestinian Authority, if he had any idea how the tunnels collapsed, Mordechai replied, “God knows.”

A decision by Hamas’ military wing to attack Israel through the tunnels could result from IDF attempts to detect the tunnels, leading to a general security deterioration along the border. It could also follow escalation of the confrontations on the West Bank, with Israel retaliating in Gaza to a multiple-casualty attack engineered by the Gaza wing of Hamas.

However, the most important variable in the mutual deterrence equation appears to be the steadily worsening economic situation in Gaza.

It’s not merely a question of dry economic facts, such as Hamas’ ability to pay salaries (so far it’s managing to do so) or the extent of goods coming from Israel (which increased more than three-fold after the last war.) More important are the basic living conditions in Gaza, which are steadily deteriorating. The average duration of power supplied in some neighborhoods is down to 4-6 hours a day, while most of the available water is unsuitable for drinking. Data presented to politicians in Israel recently showed that by 2020 irreversible damage will have been caused to Gaza’s underground water reservoirs.

Unemployment in the Strip now stands at 42.7 percent, slightly lower than immediately after the last war, when it reached 44 percent. Unemployment hits young people and academicians particularly hard, while private sector employees are making less than minimum wage. Over the last few years, the harsh impact of the blockade by Egypt has also been felt. During 2015, only 30,000 people left Gaza through the Rafah border crossing.

Alleviating the misery

The signs of economic deterioration and the worsening conditions of Gazans are clearly noted by Israel’s defense establishment. Most senior defense officials support the implementation of immediate measures to alleviate the situation and improve infrastructure. The hope is that such measures will reduce Hamas’ incentive to embark on a war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon seem less concerned than the defense officials. They believe the situation in Gaza is not dire, noting the continued supply of goods on trucks from Israel and the levying of taxes by Hamas. They are reluctant to give approval for large infrastructure projects, such as an upgrading of the power grid in Gaza.

They have two key arguments. One is a concern that further easing will be exploited by Hamas to rehabilitate its military capabilities, based on the fact that some of the iron and concrete that has entered Gaza at the border crossings was used in excavating tunnels and in the production of rockets. The second relates to Israel’s demands that talks be renewed regarding the return of the bodies of two casualties from the last war, Lt. Hadar Goldin and First Sgt. Oron Shaul.

Israel should remember the events that led up to Operation Protective Edge. A few weeks before the war erupted there was a proposal, which was rejected, to increase the volume of goods transferred to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing. These measures were enacted only after the war.

The headlines this week reeked of déjà vu, reminiscent of previous confrontations and intifadas. The three armed terrorists who carried out an attack in Jerusalem arrived from Qabatiya, a town that led the uprising in the northern Samaria area during the first intifada. A one-day closure was imposed on Qabatiya and Ramallah and the houses of the terrorists, who were killed in the attack, were marked for demolition.

In Ramallah, Abbas hosted the families of 11 terrorists from East Jerusalem who have been killed in the round of confrontations. In Jerusalem, it was decided to take steps to physically separate the northern West Bank from its southern half. On the Gaza border the army was feverishly looking for tunnels, with Israeli and Hamas leaders exchanging threats.

1987, 2001, 2014 – it seems that Israel and the Palestinians are determined to march hand in hand, backwards in the tunnel of time.

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